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Sports >  WSU football

Ranking Washington State’s 12 games from least to most interesting

UPDATED: Sat., March 6, 2021

Head coach Clay Helton, center right, and WSU counterpart Nick Rolovich shake hands after USC’s 38-13 win on Dec. 6 in Los Angeles.  (Associated Press)
Head coach Clay Helton, center right, and WSU counterpart Nick Rolovich shake hands after USC’s 38-13 win on Dec. 6 in Los Angeles. (Associated Press)

For now, Nick Rolovich has to settle with hearing the tales, seeing the pictures and watching the video clips of a packed Martin Stadium on game day.

In six months, he hopes to get the real thing.

“The stories about this stadium and the fans and the experience and the energy, sometimes it’s getting even harder to imagine because it’s been quiet for so long,” Washington State’s head football coach said earlier this week on Sirus XM Pac-12 radio. “But that’s one thing I do yearn for is to see what this Martin Stadium experience is like.”

In conjunction with the Pac-12’s schedule release, WSU unveiled its fall schedule last week, announcing seven home games and five more on the road.

It’s difficult to gauge what the Cougars will look like on the field when the Sept. 4 opener comes around, let alone any of their opponents, so we ranked the 12 games from least to most interesting.

12. Portland State, Sept. 11, Martin Stadium

On the same day that will see Washington line up against Michigan, Oregon pay a visit to Ohio State and Colorado host Texas A&M, WSU’s game against Portland State won’t bring nearly as much excitement. Granted, a game is a game, especially considering the circumstances in 2020.

The last time the Cougars and Vikings met, PSU sprung a 24-17 upset, helping interim coach Bruce Barnum secure the full-time gig in Portland. Barnum, whose son Brody plays for WSU’s baseball team, was the Big Sky Coach of the Year in 2015, but his Vikings have gone just 12-33 in four seasons since.

11. At Arizona State, Oct. 30, Tempe

Expect Tempe to be buzzing, not only because this game falls the night before Halloween in a college town that comes alive for such holidays, but also because ASU should expect to contend in the Pac-12 South behind third-year starting quarterback Jayden Daniels. The Sun Devils slipped against USC and UCLA last fall but rebounded to beat Arizona and Oregon State, piling up 106 points in those games.

ASU not only has home-field advantage here, but the Sun Devils will be coming off their bye week. WSU will be at the tail end of a stretch that sees the Cougars play nine games in as many weeks.

10. At California, Oct. 2, Berkeley

We can (probably) guarantee this game won’t be scrubbed 90 minutes before kickoff.

A last-minute COVID-19 case on Cal’s side prevented the Cougars and Golden Bears from playing at Martin Stadium last fall, so the next game between the Pac-12 North foes will take place in Berkeley, where WSU has lost three straight. In 2015, the Cougars conceded a special teams touchdown in a six-point loss at Memorial Stadium. In 2017, Luke Falk struggled to jump-start the Air Raid offense and an eighth-ranked WSU team lost 37-3. In 2019, a significant officiating blunder emerged as the top storyline in the wake of a 33-20 California win.

Something bizarre usually happens when the Cougars and Golden Bears meet in Berkeley, so take your guess as to what’s in store for this next chapter of Cal-WSU.

9. At Utah, Sept. 25, Salt Lake City

By Sept. 25, WSU fans may be still bemoaning the fact their football team has to play at Rice-Eccles Stadium for the fourth time in five years. Frankly, it’s hard to blame them.

After blowing a three-score lead against the Utes in the 2020 finale – a game that ESPN gave WSU a 95.4% chance of winning – the Cougars have made it a point to get “4.6% better” in 2021. Even if the fans are dreading another road game in the Wasatch Mountains, players won’t be looking too far for motivation with vivid memories of last year’s collapse.

8. Oregon State, Oct. 9, Martin Stadium

With three losses and three games canceled because of COVID-19, a Nov. 7 victory over Oregon State in Rolovich’s debut was, in many ways, the lone bright spot of the 2020 season. It also signified the program’s seventh consecutive win over the Beavers.

Jonathan Smith’s team played inspired football at certain points of the 2020 season, but the Beavers opened with two losses and finished with three more. Now they have to replace stud running back Jermar Jefferson, who had 390 yards and 11 rushing/receiving touchdowns in three career games against the Cougars.

7. Stanford, Oct. 16, Martin Stadium

The Cougars were on a team bus, headed to the Moscow-Pullman Regional Airport, when a positive COVID-19 test(s) dropped WSU under the 53-player threshold and forced the teams to cancel last season. Stanford came into the week having lost two games in a row and finished with four straight wins.

There will be few places for Stanford to hide during a season that has the Cardinal scheduled to play 12 Power Five opponents. If David Shaw’s team is a legitimate title contender, it should be pretty clear by this Week 7 matchup in Pullman.

6. Arizona, Nov. 19, Martin Stadium

The Cougars again drew a home Pac-12 game the weekend before Thanksgiving, which forces much of the student body to make a tough decision: Stick around to attend the game or get an early start on Thanksgiving break. This game often falls on a Saturday, but with it being on Friday this year, a few more students may be convinced to stay put for the night and travel home on Saturday.

Arizona may not be much more competitive than it was during a 0-5 campaign last season, but the Wildcats will be more interesting under first-year coach Jedd Fish. Adding another layer of intrigue to this is the fact that WSU transfer quarterback Gunner Cruz is a candidate to take over for Grant Gunnell in Tucson and could be starting against his former teammates in the second to last week of the regular season.

With an Apple Cup seven days later, this may also be WSU’s last best shot to secure a postseason bid, as it was against OSU two years ago.

5. BYU, Oct. 23, Martin Stadium

The last time WSU played a nonconference game after September was in 2009, when Paul Wulff’s Cougars lost to Notre Dame 40-14 in a Halloween matchup at the San Antonio Alamodome. The Cougars haven’t hosted a nonconference game in October since 2001 – a 53-28 thumping of Montana State.

This game should be more competitive than both of those.

Outgoing quarterback Zach Wilson picked up many of the headlines during BYU’s 11-win season, but the Cougars were balanced on offense and had a strong rushing presence with tailback Tyler Allgeier, who had 1,130 yards and 13 touchdowns. Allgeier returns this fall, as do a handful of members of a defense that held opponents to 15 points per game.

4. At Oregon, Nov. 13, Eugene

After winning four in a row against Oregon, WSU has slipped in the last two matchups, including last year in a game that saw the Cougars lead 19-7 before surrendering a 3-yard touchdown run to CJ Verdell just before halftime. The Ducks will have a different quarterback for the third time in as many years, with 2020 starter Tyler Shough transferring to Texas Tech, and the Cougars may have the same situation.

The Cougars will be coming off their bye week and may be on the cusp of bowl eligibility when they travel to Autzen Stadium. This game may feature the top two running backs in the Pac-12 – Oregon’s Verdell and WSU’s Max Borghi – but don’t overlook the trench battle between Ducks edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and Cougars right tackle Abe Lucas. Both project as first- or second-day selections in the 2022 NFL draft.

3. Utah State, Sept. 4, Martin Stadium

When the Cougars and Aggies meet in the season opener, it will have been 652 days since fans were last allowed inside the Martin Stadium gates. In an ideal world, 33,000 will fill the seats in Pullman, temperatures will hover around 70 degrees and the skies will turn bright orange before an early evening kickoff. We can dream, but it’s not a time to be greedy. Some level of fan attendance would be better than none, and merely reaching the season opener without any hiccups would be meaningful, given last year’s setbacks.

It’s hard to imagine the Cougars returning to the postseason without winning at least two of their three nonconference games. The first two should be much more manageable than the third.

The Aggies, who’ll be playing their first game under new coach Blake Anderson, went 1-5 last season and struggled to find consistency from the QB position one year after Jordan Love led USU to seven wins.

2. USC, Sept. 18, Martin Stadium

Even if the Cougars pick up two wins to start the year, it’s unlikely they’ll be in the Top 25 conversation prior to a Week 3 matchup with USC. The Trojans should enter the season as a top-15 or top-10 team, and will have a chance to climb a few rungs before playing WSU in Pullman.

Sam Darnold vs. Luke Falk didn’t disappoint in 2017, nor did Gardner Minshew vs. J.T. Daniels in 2018. The Cougars were missing a handful of key defensive players in the 2020 matchup – not to mention Borghi – and had a QB coming off COVID-19 hiatus, which made a 38-13 USC blowout less than compelling.

Generally speaking, most of the recent games between these two have been riveting, and the hype around USC QB Kedon Slovis will bring a few more eyes – and NFL scouts – to this game. If a 2-0 WSU team can pull the upset, the Cougars will almost certainly enter the Top 25 a day later. The first step will be not conceding a 35-0 lead.

1. At Washington, Nov. 26, Seattle

Although it feels much longer, it’s been a little over a year since Rolovich stood at a podium and proclaimed the importance of the annual rivalry game with Washington.

For the first time since 1943, the Cougars and Huskies were unable to play the Apple Cup, due to COVID-19 developments within WSU’s football program, but a rivalry game that’s happened 112 times since 1900 is set to resume on Black Friday.

UW’s 3-1 record in 2020 may not be have been fully reflective of the Huskies’ quality, given that all four games were played in Seattle and Jimmy Lake’s team missed Oregon and USC. Nonetheless, UW will be expected to compete for a division title this fall, and the Huskies are projected to return almost 20 starters on offense and defense.

As it would have last year, the game will feature new coaches, new coordinators and new quarterbacks. That may be a good omen for the Cougars, who have walked away empty-handed in the past seven matchups and 10 of the last 11.

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