PULLMAN – The visitors have adopted a slogan this year: “We ain’t done yet.” The hosts, meanwhile, are just getting started.
Oregon State (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) is riding four consecutive wins’ worth of momentum. Washington State (2-3, 1-2) seems to finally be finding its footing.
The Cougars are entering Week 6 on a high note after putting together their most complete game of the season – a defense-fueled 21-6 victory over California that alleviated some tension surrounding their program.
WSU will celebrate homecoming when it entertains the Beavers for a conference game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Gesa Field. Oregon State is a 3.5-point favorite.
“It’s a great challenge. It’s the perfect challenge that I think this team needs to see if we can compete with one of the best,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said earlier this week. “Coming off a win, it felt like we took a step, mindset-wise.”
Rolovich was responding to a question about the Cougars’ defense, which will receive a stiff test from a Beavers ground game that has emerged among the nation’s most productive.
In the past three years under coach Jonathan Smith, OSU’s offense went with a balanced approach, but the emphasis shifted as Smith and his staff recognized the effectiveness of their between-the-tackles, ground-and-pound tactic.
Now the Beavers are off to their best start in eight years, and sitting in first place in the Pac-12 North for the first time since the conference adopted a divisional format 10 years ago.
They rolled up over 500 yards on 101 carries in the past two weeks in head-turning wins over USC and Washington. After defeating the Trojans in Los Angeles for the first time in 61 years, Smith unknowingly created a new team mantra when he told the Beavers this was only the beginning.
“Celebrate a win, but we’ve got way more to us,” he said during a news conference this week.
“I’m not concerned that our team’s going to become overconfident. This team understands that it’s hard to win. … You just go back to this league, and anybody is beating anybody.”
The Beavers, who haven’t had a winning season since 2013, play the Cougars annually, and OSU hasn’t come out on top in the past seven tries. Last year, in Rolovich’s WSU coaching debut, the Cougs breezed to a 38-28 win in Corvallis.
Rolovich is mostly disregarding that game, which was affected by coronavirus-related absences. The Cougars’ personnel has changed – they were missing 32 players for various reasons in that contest. The Beavers return 17 starters from the 2020 lineup, but they have evolved significantly in the past year.
“They started to fill out,” Rolovich said. “They look like they’re a more physical team than maybe they were a year ago.
“They’re a challenge on all three sides of the ball, and I think that’s (because of) a good coach. They deserve some credit and respect.”
WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura, who starred in his first collegiate start last year against OSU, has not sensed a major shift in the Beavers’ defensive depth chart or formations. But in watching film, he can tell OSU is playing more inspired football.
“Pretty much the same stuff from last year, but they’re really more sound with it,” he said. “I feel like their system, all the guys they got right now are just really bought into their stuff. It’s going to be a good game. They have a couple of new guys, but just with another year, they got better.”
The Cougars’ run-and-shoot offense has only established scattered pops of rhythm this season.
Seeking an uptick in explosive plays downfield, Rolovich reworked the system somewhat last week, “dressing up” the offense with different personnel groups, formations and motions. The Cougars had only sporadic success moving the chains – early in the first and third quarters.
“It was a step in the right direction, I’d say,” receiver Travell Harris said. “We had a couple of new plays, some new little wrinkles, new things we did in the offense.”
The Beavers are known to call blitz packages regularly. They’re second in the conference in sacks (12) and rushing defense (107.2 yards per game). OSU’s pressure has induced errant throws, and the Beavers are eighth nationally with 12 takeaways (nine interceptions).
“We need to keep pushing the offense to get more points on the board and not turn the ball over as much,” Rolovich said.
De Laura has noticed a steadily maturing attitude within the WSU offense as the year has progressed.
“When stuff gets bad, it’s not everyone putting their heads down,” he said. “Just the positivity (has improved).”
WSU’s defense will be banked on to limit a stalwart Beavers rushing attack that churns ahead for 5.5 yards per rush and isn’t opposed to loading its three capable backs up with a combined 40-plus carries per game.
“They’ve got a great O-line, great tight ends. They have an awesome backfield,” Cougar edge Brennan Jackson said. “It’s going to be a really big challenge for us, being able to be disciplined, set hard edges. It’s going to be one of those smash-mouth football games. We love to see those.”
For the Cougars’ defense, it might feel like good timing. WSU was disruptive in its past two games against Cal and Utah, forcing a combined 10 punts and four takeaways, and tallying 12 tackles for loss.
But it has yet to prove if it can neutralize a dominant rushing game like OSU’s. The Beavers primarily run downhill to set up play-action passes. Sometimes, Rolovich noted, they’ll call motion sweeps.
Stopping the run on early downs is key for WSU’s defense, which did so in Berkeley, holding Cal to a 3-of-15 mark on third downs. The Beavers top the Pac-12 in third-down conversion rate at 52%.
“That’s definitely one of the battles going into this game,” Rolovich said. “They know who they are. They’re good at what they do. With the way they’re running the ball, it’s definitely something we’re focused on.”
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