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Washington State preseason notes (Oct. 24): Defense ‘wins the day’ in second scrimmage while offense, QBs regress

Oct. 24, 2020 Updated Sat., Oct. 24, 2020 at 10:04 p.m.

Washington State's Armani Marsh (left) and Justus Rogers (right) converge on the ballcarrier during the Cougars' scrimmage Saturday afternoon at Martin Stadium.  (Washington State Athletics)
Washington State's Armani Marsh (left) and Justus Rogers (right) converge on the ballcarrier during the Cougars' scrimmage Saturday afternoon at Martin Stadium. (Washington State Athletics)

The only thing Washington State fans have wanted to talk about the last two weeks seemed to be the last thing their head coach wanted to discuss after the team’s second scrimmage, but also the main thing he’ll have to figure out before the Cougars board an airplane to Corvallis two weeks from now.

Nick Rolovich was unable to identify a front-runner in Washington State’s quarterback battle Saturday, which would be fine if all three contestants were progressing at the same rate, gradually improving their understanding of the run-and-shoot playbook and making the decision tough for the coaching staff .

To be clear, the decision will be challenging, but just not in the ways Rolovich may have hoped 14 days before the Cougars and their first-year coach make a long-awaited debut at Oregon State.

The offense as a whole took a few steps in the wrong direction Saturday at Martin Stadium, and the most important position on the depth chart – surely the most important one in Rolovich’s offense, too – left coaches with more confusion than clarity.

“I think we need to look at ourselves on the offensive side of the ball, in the staff room, and see what we can execute at a high level, and what we can’t we’ve just got to be honest with ourselves,” Rolovich said. “Because I don’t want to spend the next two weeks developing a wildcat offense. We’ve got to go play.”

Rolovich, feeling the need to clarify, later acknowledged he was being “facetious” with the wildcat comment. But the coach is dead serious about the need for offensive improvement over the next two weeks, and indicated that’ll start in the QB room.

Asked to assess the play of the position in the second scrimmage, which had more of a situational emphasis than the first one, Rolovich started by saying “Not good. Not good enough.”

Last week, the coach seemed to suggest it was redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper who performed the best, while also applauding true freshman Jayden de Laura. Rolovich didn’t dole out any individual praise to the quarterbacks Saturday, but multiple Cougar players dropped hints indicating de Laura had the strongest showing.

“I think today, Jayden had a better day than Cammon and Gunner (Cruz),” junior running back Max Borghi said. “But that doesn’t mean tomorrow Jayden can’t have a worse day. It’s a day-by-day thing, and it’s going to be a tough choice for these coaches and I know that.”

During the post-scrimmage Zoom call with reporters, senior linebacker Justus Rogers was asked which of the team’s cornerbacks had the best outing, after complimenting the group as a whole. Only, Rogers heard “quarterback” rather than “cornerback” and proceeded to single out de Laura.

“No. 4 was making some good plays in two-minute (drill),” Rogers said.

The stats favored de Laura, without question. The Honolulu native finished 10 of 13 with 46 yards and one touchdown through the air. While he completed better than 75% of his throws, both of the other QBs competing for the starting job hovered well below 50%. Cooper was 2 of 7 for 24 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, while Cruz was 5 of 15 for 49 yards and one rushing touchdown.

Still, the expressions on the faces of Rolovich and Borghi in post-scrimmage interviews, compared to those of Rogers and defensive coordinator Jake Dickert, told the tale of which unit felt better about how things went Saturday.

“I think the defense probably went to sleep thinking about whooping the offense,” Rolovich said. “It’s good. Humility is a good thing.”

In addition to the interceptions, footage of the scrimmage provided by the school showed two fumbles, meaning the defense forced two more turnovers (four) than the offense had touchdowns.

Cornerback Jaylen Watson, the former USC signee who transferred to WSU from Ventura College, stepped in front of a sideline throw from Cooper and ran his interception untouched to the end zone. Chau Smith-Wade, another newcomer who’s drawn praise from coaches and teammates for his play at cornerback, had the other interception. Scrimmage footage seemed to show the freshman from Chicago bringing the ball back for a pick-six, but it didn’t show in the scrimmage stats.

“I thought they took it to task, they were serious about the day, they brought the energy,” Dickert said of his defense. “We just want to play hard, first and foremost, and I think the guys did that today. They were having fun together, built some momentum and it was fun to see.”

Linebacker Dillon Sherman had four tackled to lead the defense, while Smith-Wade had three and both Watson and Rogers had two.

Curbing COVID

The last time Pat Chun delivered an update on COVID-19 testing, WSU had recorded 53 new positive cases among student-athletes, bringing the department’s total to 60 since athletes returned to campus this summer.

WSU has apparently made significant strides since then, with only four positive cases over the last weeks, Chun told Matt Chazanow, Derek Deis, Jessamyn McIntyre and Alex Brink on the weekly Cougar Football Saturday radio show.

Quidel’s rapid Antigen testing machines arrived on campus approximately four weeks ago, conducting 2,220 tests to this point. That would translate .001% positivity rate in about a month’s time.

9 a.m. a no-go

Rolovich and Chun have offered their stances on the 9 a.m. kickoffs the Pac-12 will adopt this season – which the conference hopes will increase exposure and viewership across the country.

WSU’s coach and its athletic director have admitted they aren’t advocates of the idea and Chun, during Saturday’s radio show, indicated it isn’t in play for the Cougars in 2020.

According to Chun, both teams have to agree to a 9.a.m. kickoff .

“It won’t be something for Washington State because both teams have to agree with it,” Chun said. “(We) couldn’t wrap our minds around how we could get that done.”

Captains named

Wide receiver Renard Bell had pregame coin toss duties the last two seasons at WSU, but his “captain” role didn’t necessarily go beyond choosing heads or tails minutes before kickoff. For the first time in years, the Cougars have named captains and will rely on those four players for more than the coin toss.

Rolovich told reporters the team’s captains, as chosen by their teammates, are redshirt senior left tackle Liam Ryan, redshirt senior linebacker Jahad Woods, junior running back Max Borghi and junior right tackle Abraham Lucas.

“That’s a high honor knowing my teammates picked me as a captain,” Borghi said. “Knowing I’m someone they look up to, it definitely means a lot to me, but I’ve just got to keep working hard and proving myself. I’ve got to bring all them up with me, because this is a team sport, team game and I need every one of them as much as they need me.”

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