PULLMAN – As the Washington State Cougars walked off Gesa Field on Saturday, they were probably thinking, “Why not us?”
They had just knocked off Oregon State, which sat atop the Pacific-12 Conference’s North Division standings.
After a bleak start to their season, the Cougs (3-3, 2-2 Pac-12) are hitting stride.
On a crisp homecoming day in Pullman, WSU’s run-and-shoot offense seemed to find a new gear, and its defense continued to have a knack for timely plays as the Cougars prevailed 31-24 in a back-and-forth affair.
WSU, riding impressive back-to-back wins, aims to prolong its midseason surge when it plays host to Stanford on Saturday.
WSU makes offensive strides,
wins battle of contrasting approaches
Saturday’s game featured the Pac-12’s most productive rushing attack versus a passing game that is fast climbing the conference ranks.
The clash of contrasting offensive styles resulted in a thriller, with WSU and Oregon State (4-2, 2-1) trading punches throughout the second half after a first 30 minutes defined by defensive stands and possessions fizzling out late.
The pass-happy Cougs ended up outdueling their Pac-12 foes for their eighth straight win in the series.
WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura couldn’t miss, especially in the second half.
The elusive sophomore didn’t need to use his legs. He hung in the pocket and scanned the field. De Laura went 15 of 18 after halftime, piling up a career-high 399 yards passing and three touchdowns. Only three Power Five QBs tallied more yards in Week 6 than de Laura, who completed 69.6% of his attempts.
“He was efficient, took care of the ball,” Cougars coach Nick Rolovich said. “He’s grown the trust of everybody in this program. He’s making people around him better, and that is a key characteristic in good quarterback play. … I thought he played tremendous.”
WSU’s passing offense climbed from the middle of the pack in the conference to second (260 yards per game). The team ranks 48th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in per-game passing.
The Cougs’ 491 yards of offense and 399 passing yards against Oregon State marked program high points in 10 games under the offensive-minded Rolovich, whose run-and-shoot system hadn’t produced more than 30 points in a game this year and was prone to second-half flops. This time, the Cougs rebounded from a few first-half stumbles.
The Nos. 2 and 3 longest plays of WSU’s season came after halftime against the Beavers. The Cougars connected on 11 passing plays that went for more than 15 yards – their most in a game this year. Each of the seven players to catch a pass had at least one reception of 15-plus yards.
“They weren’t terribly long passes, but Jayden does a really good job getting the ball out,” Rolovich said of the two 50-yard gainers to Joey Hobert and Travell Harris. “It was nice to see some yards after the catch and explosion. This team deserves so much credit for what they’ve been through. They kept grinding.”
OSU’s passing defense entered the game ranked 10th in the Pac-12, and WSU capitalized. But the Beavers boasted a top-50 scoring defense (21.6 ppg) and allowed more points versus WSU than they had conceded to any other team.
Rolovich credited co-offensive coordinator/QB coach Craig Stutzmann for “calling a great game.”
The Cougars spruced up their offense with some new formations.
“We started last week with a little bit of, whether it’s ‘eye candy’ or different looks,” Rolovich said. “I think we were stale. We felt like we were still learning the offense. But we did a little bit more to give our guys a chance … adding a little flavor to the offense was somewhat an emphasis this last couple weeks.”
WSU’s winning score had some “eye candy” to it.
The Cougars, who’d sailed down the field for touchdowns on three consecutive drives, got creative on what turned out to be the clincher with just more than 5 minutes remaining.
Facing third-and-goal from OSU’s 1-yard line and a 24-all tie, WSU sent out an unusual heavy-set formation with an extra lineman and its four receivers all bunched up. De Laura faked a handoff to his left while running back Deon McIntosh slipped out right into the open field. De Laura flipped it to him for an easy score to cap a 12-play, 75-yard drive that spanned nearly 6 minutes.
“We work on a lot of stuff that we haven’t put out there yet,” de Laura said. “It’s just patience, and when the time comes, we’re going to throw stuff out there.”
WSU’s reinvigorated offense scored three touchdowns on as many chances in the red zone in the second half. It came into the game 9 of 22 in that category. The Cougs converted 8 of 8 third downs after halftime and 2 of 8 in the first half. They were 22 of 64 (34.4%) on third downs entering the day.
WSU was stuffed on a couple of head-scratching third-and-intermediate draw plays early in the game. As the game progressed, the Cougars’ third-down play calls became more clever. They gave de Laura easy throws into soft spots over the middle. Their most impressive conversion came on a third-and-12 early on their winning drive. McIntosh took a screen pass 16 yards behind a wall of linemen.
“We’re on a good path right now,” de Laura said of the offense’s week-to-week development.
WSU was held to 92 yards rushing by an OSU defense that ranks in the top 20 nationally in stopping the run. It was the third game this year in which the Cougars failed to surpass 100 yards on the ground.
They recorded 73 rushing yards on 13 attempts (5.6 yards per run) after the half as the offense opened up.
WSU often went with an empty backfield and five-wide sets to combat the Beavers’ loaded defensive front. When OSU began to remove bodies from the box, the Cougs found seams up the gut with McIntosh or Max Borghi.
“We get a bunch of six-man boxes, so the numbers aren’t great and (opponents) have played us that way probably the majority of the year,” Rolovich said. “We needed more out of the pass game because the numbers were on our side.”
Rolovich gave kudos to his offensive line for playing its second straight clean game. De Laura ran into a sack, but that was it. The Beavers were second in the Pac-12 with 12 sacks coming in.
“We were able to get through progressions, allowing our receivers to get open,” Rolovich said of an O-line that started senior Brian Greene at center for the first time since Week 1. “The offensive line deserves a ton of credit. … I thought Jayden would be appreciative of the time he had back there.”
Perhaps the brightest moment for WSU’s line came on Lincoln Victor’s first Cougar touchdown, a 14-yard screen play early in the fourth period. Three linemen made key blocks to clear a lane.
OSU’s ground-and-pound approach piled up 309 yards. The Beavers are the only Pac-12 team to top 300 yards in a game this year, and they have done so twice. They paced the Pac-12 with 36 points per game before this one.
They had 6.9 yards per carry, charging through WSU’s defensive front for 14 rushing plays of 10 or more yards.
“The game plan coming in was: We knew they were going to get yards, but just get them behind the sticks, make them have to beat us through the air,” said WSU edge Brennan Jackson, who made a diving interception on a juggled ball in the red zone midway through the third quarter. “Later in the game, we started getting them behind the sticks, second-and-12, second-and-13 – making them have to throw the ball. … They got a lot of yards, but when it counted, we were able to get after the quarterback.”
Beavers QB Chance Nolan went 11 of 25 for 158 yards. WSU has held each of the past three QBs it has faced under 200 yards passing.
The Beavers went 6 of 12 on third downs. On their average third down in the second half, they needed 8.8 yards to move the chains.
“They had some big, explosive runs, but how about B.J.’s pick? There were some plays made by the defense,” Rolovich said.
Four of OSU’s drives were stopped in Cougar territory. The Beavers sliced downfield for back-to-back touchdowns before their 13-play, 75-yard drive was halted at WSU’s 4-yard line with 30 seconds remaining.
“We talked before we hit the field that it was going to be a physical football game, especially on the defensive front,” Rolovich said. “I felt like we matched it. … The awareness, knowing it was coming and accepting that challenge is something that takes a lot of conviction from a young man who’s in that box all the time banging around.”
Hicks III stands out
Of his team-leading and career-high 10 tackles, none was more important than the last.
Safety George Hicks III made a shoe-string stop on OSU’s Trey Lowe at the Cougars’ 4-yard line to preserve WSU’s one-touchdown lead and seal the victory.
WSU edge Ron Stone Jr. recorded a clutch sack to set up an OSU fourth-and-19 with about half a minute to play. Lowe snuck out of the backfield and into open field to his left. Nolan dropped the ball off and crossed his fingers.
Lowe cut across the field and had room to run. The first-down marker was in his sights until Hicks charged in and laid out, clipping Lowe’s left leg and knocking him down 1 yard short of a first down.
“He’s someone you can trust on the field 100% of the time,” Jackson said of Hicks, the former cornerback who made the move to free safety this year. Hicks, a grad student, was a reserve at his new post until starter Halid Djibril sustained a leg injury in Week 2.
“He just makes plays you need to make. On and off the field, he’s a student of the game. He understands things because he’s a leader on the team. He’s older. Coming down to the wire, I trust he’ll make the plays he needs to make, and he did (Saturday).”
With about a minute left in the second quarter, Hicks broke on a sit-down route near the far sideline and made a diving interception five plays after a Cougars drive stalled in the red zone.
WSU’s offense couldn’t cash in – the first half ended with an interception in the end zone – but Hicks’ two plays epitomized the Cougar defense’s ever-growing identity of resilience.
“You can’t dwell on plays that happened prior,” Hicks said. “You’ve got to worry about the play that’s happening now. … Something bad is going to happen every game. When it does happen, shake it off and get it back on the next series or next play.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Cougs newsletter
Get the latest Cougs headlines delivered to your inbox as they happen.