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Nick Rolovich: Washington State, USC ‘feel really good’ about chances of playing Sunday

Washington State wide receiver Renard Bell (9) and quarterback Jayden de Laura (4) walk onto the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.   (Associated Press)

With all the adversity 2020 has offered, it still feels as though Washington State and USC have a mountain to climb before they can play a football game this Sunday.

As of Monday night, though, the Cougars and Trojans are confident in their ability to meet the Pac-12’s various COVID-19 requirements over the course of the next six days and receive clearance to play at 4:30 p.m. (on FS1) in Los Angeles.

“Well, 2020 has been full of unforeseen circumstances, but I feel really good right now,” Rolovich said. “I do. From what I got from coach (Clay) Helton, I think he feels the same.”

Neither WSU nor USC could play this past weekend because of COVID-19 problems, and the Cougars have missed two consecutive games with at least nine players in COVID-19 protocol – meaning they tested positive for the virus or were considered a close contact of somebody who did.

Sunday’s game in Los Angeles was supposed to take place two days earlier, but the Cougars and Trojans agreed to move it back to accommodate the recent COVID-19 cases and contact tracing within USC’s football program.

“I think there’s been excellent communication, so I wasn’t terribly surprised,” Rolovich said. “I think both schools have been working together to find a way to get the game in, so I was kind of aware of it before a lot of people. If that’s what we have to do to get a game in, I think everything was on the up and up. I think that’s just the main goal is to get these kids a game.”

The sheer fact the game was moved, rather than canceled, would seem to indicate USC feels good about its prospects of having enough players available by Sunday. Of the nine WSU players placed in COVID-19 protocol, five entered between Nov. 16-18 and four more on Nov. 20, meaning they’ll have completed the required 10-day isolation/14-day quarantine by this Friday at the latest.

“I think me and Clay have been very honest with each other about what the situation is and what we need to do to get the game going,” said Rolovich, who had a short response – “yes” – when asked if he felt good about his team’s COVID-19 situation entering game week.

Confidence only goes so far in this environment, though.

A few days ago, it seemed that a new stay at home directive from the Los Angeles County Public Health Department would add further complications to this weekend’s game, but ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura later got clarification the health and safety modifications wouldn’t impact college or pro sports.

That doesn’t mean the Cougars and Trojans are totally out of the woods yet. Both teams, with thin numbers as is, obviously need to avoid any COVID-19 outbreaks between now and Sunday, but California Gov. Gavin Newsom indicated Monday he’d have to enforce statewide stay at home restrictions if hospitalizations continued to surge this week. It’s unknown if or how that would affect college sports.

In the past three weeks, WSU players have had to absorb their fair share of disheartening news, with two Pac-12 North games being canceled. On Sunday, they learned their game against USC would be moved back two days. On Monday, they learned the kickoff time of said game had been moved up an hour and a half. Given what’s happened already, they know all of it could still change at a moment’s notice.

“You’ve just got to stay ready,” linebacker Dillon Sherman said. “We have a little bit of time to get our bodies back and prepare well, so I think we’re all excited. It’s been a couple weeks, so we’re excited to do what we came here for.”

A football team that’s also been marred by injury may have a few more players healthy by Sunday, but Rolovich said the team’s two-week hiatus was more beneficial other reasons.

“I don’t know that it would make a huge amount of difference with the amount of guys we’re getting back and healthy to be able to play,” Rolovich said. “Maybe a couple, but hey, I think our approach is, it cuts down on our Cal prep week. We got to use the extra days at least in the office, not necessarily for our kids to absorb it in, but we’re going to have a quick turnaround after Sunday.”

Borghi ‘getting closer’

During Monday’s media availability, Rolovich offered two key updates on the status of his offensive backfield.

Starting quarterback Jayden de Laura, who tested positive for COVID-19 at some point before the Cougars were supposed to play Stanford, is out of a 10-day isolation and has been cleared to resume activities with the team.

Asked if he expected de Laura to be available Sunday, Rolovich said “I do.”

But the verdict is still out on injured running back Max Borghi, who Rolovich said last week was close to practicing for the Cougars – the first step toward the Preseason All-Pac-12 First Team selection returning to the field.

That’s a positive step, but Rolovich couldn’t say definitively if Borghi would play for the Cougars on Sunday, just that the running back was “getting closer, getting closer.”