Don’t take your eyes off …
Washington State’s personnel in the trenches. The Cougars (2-3, 1-2 Pac-12) played 11 defensive linemen last weekend in a 21-6 win over Cal – during which WSU benefited from ample D-line pressure. Four well-known edge rushers shared time, and the interior line seemed to transform every possession. Amir Mujahid, Ahmir Crowder, Antonio Pule and Christian Mejia have been holding it down at D-tackle throughout the year, but the rotation appears to have received a few extra pieces in Jesus Echevarria, who entered on Cal’s second drive, and Ty Garay-Harris – neither had played more than a couple of downs before Saturday. The Cougs will likely need to field a heavy lineup and alternate fresh legs Saturday against Oregon State (4-1, 2-0). The Beavers’ offense controls the time-of-possession column and wears down its adversaries with a tenacious ground game that rivals the nation’s most productive. That might mean the Cougars rely more on their big men in the middle and less on a speed-oriented D-line that they have grown fond of employing in passing situations. On the other side of the ball, WSU is still trying to sort out its most effective group of offensive linemen. Ma’ake Fifita and Cade Beresford are rotating at right guard, senior center Brian Greene is getting time at left guard and tackle Liam Ryan has played some spot snaps at center. OSU’s defense is distinguished by its physical front seven. Utah’s defensive box was of a similar caliber when WSU traveled to Salt Lake City two weeks ago, and the Utes totaled eight sacks.
When WSU has the ball …
The Cougars felt they made some offensive progress in Berkeley. They have been trying to rid themselves of a tendency to play conservative offense – relying on shallow out routes and short runs. Coach Nick Rolovich said WSU added a handful of plays ahead of its game with the Bears, installing “new wrinkles” into the offense in hopes of sparking a few fireworks. The Cougs still had too many possessions stall out. Four of their five second-half drives went nowhere, none of quarterback Jayden de Laura’s four deep shots was completed, and WSU’s longest gain went for 22 yards. “We can take another step and get some more explosive plays, and be more detailed and execute cleaner,” Rolovich said. “Offensively, we’ve got to be more consistent.” There have been moments this season – five or six drives against Pac-12 competition – in which the WSU offense is rolling with tempo and seems unstoppable. But those stretches of brightness have been obscured by a multitude of three-and-outs and 11 giveaways. WSU is 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (23 points per game) and total offense (350.2 ypg). Oregon State paces the Pac-12 with 36 points per game. In a potential shootout, could the Cougs keep up? The Beavers boast a talented defensive front that has recorded 12 sacks and ranks second in the conference in rushing defense (107.2 ypg). OSU’s lengthy defensive backs have accounted for nine interceptions (third in the nation). The Beavers blitz frequently, which may cause issues for a WSU team looking to boost its production down the field. De Laura will have to get the ball away quickly.
When OSU has the ball …
Will the Cougars offer enough resistance up front? No WSU opponents from earlier this season can quite be compared to this one – running the ball, the Beavers are on another level. At 229.2 yards per game, OSU’s rushing offense ranks 15th in the nation and first in the Pac-12, by a considerable margin. Its go-to back, B.J. Baylor, piles up 6.58 yards per carry (16th in the FBS). Owing to their potent ground game, the Beavers are stellar in most every offensive stat category. Although WSU’s defensive front has looked sharp over the past couple of weeks, it has yet to face such a powerful challenge between the tackles. “We can’t afford to let them run it down our throats,” Coug linebacker Jahad Woods said. “They’re really physical up front. They have two really good backs that can run it for 4 or 5 yards every play. Eliminating the leaky yardage and stopping the run, that’s the biggest thing.” Statistically, the Cougars’ run stop is middling – it ranks seventh in the Pac-12 at 141 yards per game. It will be crucial that WSU gets a push on early downs to force OSU into third-and-long passing situations with its game-manager quarterback in Chance Nolan, who’s coming off a shaky day against Washington in which he threw for 48 yards on a 7-of-15 rate. OSU converts its third downs at a conference-best 52% clip because it typically only needs 2 or 3 yards to move the sticks. WSU got creative with a four-edge defensive line last weekend and disrupt Cal on passing downs. This week, the Cougs might not see as many opportunities to dial up defensive exotics that sacrifice size for speed.
Did you know?
The Cougars’ run-and-shoot offense accumulated 456 yards in the team’s first game under Rolovich – a smooth, 38-28 win over Oregon State on Nov. 7, 2020, in Corvallis. De Laura, making his collegiate debut, showed great promise. Deon McIntosh rumbled for 147 yards and receiver Travell Harris torched the Beavers on downfield routes for 107 yards and two touchdowns – he also had a 44-yard rushing score. WSU’s offense, on paper, has regressed. It has not surpassed that single-game yardage total in any of its seven FBS contests since then. The Cougs scored in every quarter in their 2020 defeat of OSU, but they haven’t done that in any game since. “We made some plays down the field. Travell had a couple of big catches,” Rolovich said. “I don’t think last year is fair to judge on anybody because everyone was dealing with COVID stuff.” Nevertheless, the run-and-shoot’s debut was an encouraging one. Harris hopes the Cougs can mirror that performance this weekend and get back to their explosive roots. “Just being aggressive, taking shots down the field – that was definitely a thing we wanted to do during that game, and we should see it Saturday,” he said.
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