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Analysis: Making sense of the roster attrition at Washington State that led to Saturday’s cancellation

Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich guided the Cougars against visiting Oregon on Nov. 14, but one week later didn’t have enough players to make the trip to Stanford.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Two weeks ago, Washington State coach Nick Rolovich was still reveling in his first victory as a Pac-12 football coach when he stepped up to the virtual Zoom podium at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, approximately 20 minutes after the Cougars’ 38-28 win over Oregon State.

“It means a lot to know how much it mattered to those kids tonight,” an emotional Rolovich said. “What they’ve been through since March, what we’ve been through with the guys having to step up, they deserve this feeling. … If (fans) knew the whole story about what these guys have been through and who had to jump in and switch and play, and the changes that have happened.

“I think it was an incredible display of the Cougar spirit.”

Rolovich didn’t go into great depth about what the team had been through, but minutes later he informed reporters – unprompted – the Cougars had 32 players unavailable for the season opener. Not three. Not two. Thirty-two.

In doing that, Rolovich, albeit unintentionally, introduced a storyline that hasn’t faded away the past two weeks, and one that resurfaced in a major way on Friday afternoon when it was announced WSU’s game at Stanford would be a no-contest, with the Cougars unable to meet the Pac-12-mandated threshold of 53 scholarship players, due in part to nine players being in COVID-19 protocol.

The Cougars never got on a bus, never boarded an airplane and never came close to playing Saturday’s game at Stanford Stadium, where WSU would’ve been seeking its fifth straight win over the Cardinal. WSU will look ahead to next week’s rivalry game against Washington. That, too, may be hanging in the balance if the Cougars can’t hit the magic number of 53 before 7:30 p.m. Friday.

How did the Cougars get here?

Until 11 a.m. Friday, they were prepared to catch a plane to San Jose, California.

Then WSU Athletic Director Pat Chun received word from Chief Medical Officer Sunday Henry that four additional Cougars had either tested positive for COVID-19 or were a close contact of someone who had, meaning nine football players would be in protocol. By all indications, they’d been cleared before Friday’s results came in, so the Cougars must have come agonizingly close to meeting the threshold, with at least 52 and no fewer than 49 players available.

Some may be thinking: Even with nine players out, the math still doesn’t add up. Football Subdivision teams are allotted 85 scholarships and with nine players in COVID-19 protocol, the Cougars would still have 76 scholarship players eligible – 23 more than what would’ve been required to play Stanford. But WSU’s roster attrition runs much deeper than that.

“Due to a myriad of circumstances – injuries, COVID protocols, opt-outs and transfers – we entered this week with a depleted roster,” Chun said Friday.

How did WSU drop below the 53-player threshold? Admittedly, without a detailed breakdown from someone inside the program, it’s hard to have the complete answer. But it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to arrange some of the puzzle pieces to better understand why Chun had to make a tough call to the Pac-12 on Friday – and why the Cougars may be in a challenging position moving forward.

• Starting with the nine players in COVID-19 protocol: Five entered earlier this week and four more entered Friday. As The Spokesman-Review reported Thursday, at least one of the initial five, starting quarterback Jayden de Laura, has tested positive for the virus. Sticking to school policy, Chun declined to break down the other eight – for example, how many tested positive vs. how many were placed in the protocol for contact tracing.

• Next, it’s known another seven scholarship players who were supposed to be with the team this fall entered the transfer portal or already found their way to another school. That list includes: WR Tay Martin, DB Skyler Thomas, WR Kassidy Woods, WR Mike Pettway, DL Cosmas Kwete, DL Lamonte McDougle and, most recently, DL Will Rodgers III. McDougle has since removed his name from the portal, but he hasn’t been added back to the WSU roster, so keep him on this list for now.

• Chun wasn’t at liberty to discuss WSU’s opt-outs, but there have been a handful of those, too. Eight players appear on WSU’s online roster, but not the paper rosters that have been handed out at Reser Stadium and Martin Stadium. It’s not clear what the situation is for all eight, but one way or the other, they won’t be part of the equation for the Cougars this fall. Those are: WR Brandon Gray, DB Pat Nunn, RB Cole Dubots, OL Syr Riley, DB Phillip Powell, DL Marquise Freeman, DB Justin Anderson and DL Nicholas Sheetz.

• Anyone who has been paying attention knows injuries have plagued WSU’s depth chart. Even those who haven’t paid attention likely know about running back Max Borghi. Five members of the two-deep didn’t dress for the Oregon game. Rolovich, like predecessor Mike Leach, refrains from discussing injuries, so it’s possible all five don’t fall under the “injury” category. It’s also possible the group grew smaller, or larger, within the past five days. These are the five who didn’t dress Saturday: Borghi, WR Calvin Jackson Jr., DL Willie Taylor III, S Chad Davis Jr. and CB Derrick Langford.

If the Cougars are down 29 players – roughly that, at least – and entered the season with 85 scholarship players on the roster, they’d have 56 available. That doesn’t quite hit the total needed, but it offers a more comprehensive picture of why WSU couldn’t make it to Northern California Friday, and explains how the Cougars had nearly three dozen players unavailable for the season opener. Days after the OSU game, indicated player suspensions also factored into the shortage, although it’s unclear to what extent.

Between the transfers and the opt-outs, the Cougars will be down 15 scholarship players the rest of the way, which puts them at a deficit unless they elevate a few walk-ons.

It’s not as bad as the situation Leach faces at Mississippi State, where the former WSU coach has seen 18 players walk since January.

Chun said by Sunday he’ll have a better idea of WSU’s ability to play in the Apple Cup. With a minimum 10-day isolation period required for those who tested positive for COVID-19, and a 14-day quarantine for those who came in close contact with someone who tested positive, none of the four players placed in the COVID-19 protocol will be available for the Apple Cup, even if it is optioned to Saturday or Sunday.

(A Sunday Apple Cup appears to be unlikely, unless the Pac-12 is also willing to push back WSU’s game at USC the following Friday.)

De Laura is part of the other group, having tested positive sometime between Monday and Wednesday.

If his positive test came prior to Wednesday of this week, he’d hypothetically be available to play in his first Apple Cup, though it wouldn’t give him much time to prepare. A positive test on Monday would give him one day of practice, if the game is played on Friday, while testing positive on Tuesday means no practice.

If any of the initial five are being held out for contact tracing, rather than for a positive test, they’d also be unavailable for the Apple Cup with a 14-day quarantine.

It’s possible the numbers game may work in WSU’s favor one week from now if a few of the positive tests are discovered to be “false positives,” and/or if injured players manage to recover in the next six days. That may sound like wishful thinking, especially with the alternative being that more tests turn up positive, but it’s what the Cougars are clinging to for the moment.

“I would like to state the heart and grit of this team remains undeterred,” Chun said. “The Cougars wanted to play football (Saturday) and that was evident in our discussions (Friday) with the football team.”