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Washington State mailbag: Wide range of topics spark conversation among Cougar faithful

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 14, 2021

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

After a two-week hiatus, the Washington State mailbag series is back.

And this edition is pretty jam-packed.

The Cougar football team’s offense, the basketball program’s prospects in its upcoming campaign, plus off-the-field/court storylines – multiple topics are covered here.

It seems as the season has gone on, Rolo slightly favors (Deon) McIntosh over (Max) Borghi at RB. Anything you have heard or seen on this?

- @sportzmaniax

Nothing concrete, but I’d wager a guess that Nick Rolovich isn’t leaning toward Deon McIntosh as his primary back.

Sure, McIntosh received a heavier workload against Oregon State last weekend. He posted 65 yards on 13 carries against Max Borghi’s 33 yards on nine carries. In the second half, McIntosh totaled 49 yards on eight attempts while Borghi only logged 26 yards on four rushes – and he didn’t touch the ball in the fourth quarter.

Why? There’s probably something to be said about riding the hot hand. Although WSU’s ground game wasn’t particularly productive, McIntosh ran with grit all afternoon against the Beavers, whose rushing defense began to break down somewhat later in the game. WSU averaged nearly 6 yards per carry in the second half.

I believe there was a stylistic benefit to sticking with McIntosh on Saturday. The Beavers entered the game as a top-20 team nationally in stopping the run, and the Cougars sought to match their opponent’s physical play with McIntosh’s rugged ball-carrying identity – his aggressive pursuit of gaps.

“He’s very hard to tackle. He’s a tough runner and he’s really good in pass (protection),” Rolovich said a few days before the OSU game of McIntosh, who is Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded player on the Cougars’ offense this year (77.1).

That’s no knock on Borghi’s capabilities. He has big-play potential anytime he touches the ball, but he seems to be more effective when he’s able to bounce outside the tackles, and there wasn’t a ton of space to do so against the Beavers.

There have been multiple occasions in which Borghi has run into a wall when sent up the gut on inside zones. It’s conjecture, but I feel like that’s happened with McIntosh less, and for whatever reason, WSU is fond of the inside rushing game.

Two weeks ago in Berkeley, California, Borghi had 40 yards on 13 rushes and McIntosh piled up 53 yards on 12 attempts. The Cougars left one or the other in for long periods. Borghi also appeared to be running a little tentatively as he recovered from an arm injury suffered the week before. His left stiff-arm didn’t look as powerful as usual.

Borghi had a stellar start at Utah, gaining 42 yards on six carries before getting injured on one of the first plays of the second quarter.

Borghi, of course, is an NFL draft prospect. Rolovich said recently that McIntosh is starting to “turn heads” at the next level. I’m assuming WSU is simply still searching for a balance between its two pro-caliber running backs, both of whom have also been solid blockers for the pass-happy Cougs.

“It almost makes you think about: Should we put both of them back there sometimes?” Rolovich said last week.

I have a feeling Max hasn’t been 100% healthy this season – just a feeling. Would like to see both of them get more catches (screens) outta the backfield.

- @SteeleMan

On Borghi’s health, see above.

On the lack of RB catches – it feels surprising, but the run-and-shoot’s recent history shows us that this is fairly standard within the system.

Check out the numbers from three of Rolovich’s seasons at Hawaii: In 2019, the Rainbow Warriors’ two leading rushers combined for five receptions. In 2018, their two top RBs made 18 grabs. The most productive pass-catching RB of Rolovich’s head coaching career is former Hawaii back Diocemy Saint Juste, who was the Warriors’ No. 6 receiver in 2017 with 157 yards on 28 receptions.

Borghi and McIntosh are on pace to record a combined 260 yards on 26 catches this season, so it appears Rolovich is at least attempting to boost the usage of his RBs in the passing game.

Still, Borghi is no standard back who’s a decent checkdown option at best. The guy had 86 receptions in 2019, racking up 597 yards and five touchdowns. A few months ago, he was expected to be among the most prolific pass-catching RBs in the country. He even landed on the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, which recognizes the top FBS receiver.

Alas, I suppose the run-and-shoot doesn’t work like that. Hear me out – maybe it’s because WSU feels sufficiently confident in its six wide receivers. The slotbacks have received the majority of looks, and they’ve been efficient.

The Cougars did, however, benefit from a RB in the pass game versus OSU. McIntosh took a screen 16 yards on a third-and-12 during the Cougars’ final drive of the game, which was capped with a touchdown when McIntosh sneaked outside in a bunch formation and hauled in a 1-yard scoring pass that turned out to be the winner.

Future for (offensive coordinator) Brian Smith now that he is not calling plays?

- @itsDaveFlynn

In the preseason, Rolovich said Smith “knows the intricacies of (the run-and-shoot) as good as anyone alive right now.”

I figure the OC’s role in this offense remains essential. He’s just providing advice from up in the box now, instead of on the sideline. Craig Stutzmann, the Cougs’ co-OC and quarterbacks coach, took over play-calling duties two weeks ago at Cal.

“They’re still working together very much,” Rolovich said Monday.

In the week leading up to the Cal game, Rolovich hinted that he would make some adjustments to the run-and-shoot. He hasn’t explicitly said what those changes are, but perhaps the shift in play-callers was one.

“There’s something about (Stutzmann’s) connection with the quarterback that I think is important,” Rolovich said. Stutzmann taught QBs at Hawaii from 2016-19. “I think he’s got a different flow, done a nice job. The second half (versus OSU) was really well-called.”

I think we’re all just waiting to see what happens come Monday.

- @jonthecoug

Fair.

Regardless of what you believe concerning the Rolovich vaccination/exemption saga, it’s the most important issue facing WSU.

On Monday, we’ll find out whether Rolovich’s application for a religious exemption has been granted.

If yes, then we’ll have to wait and see whether an accommodation to coach will be granted as well. In short: Can Rolovich still perform the duties of his job while staying safe?

If not, he can accept a vaccination to retain his post, or else his only choice will be to give up coaching in Pullman.

Monday’s deadline to meet the state mandate is obscuring the Cougs’ best football of the year.

I’m not going to rehash the entire narrative – I think you’re all up to date, right?

It’s been a wild ride these past few months. Strap in; it’s not quite over yet.

BASKETBALL

I wanna know what’s going on with the Noah (Williams) situation. I didn’t see him with the team on the football field Saturday.

- BigGeorge6953

I also did not see the star guard participate with the program during homecoming festivities, and he has been absent from photos/videos of recent WSU practices.

Williams’ Instagram page suggests that he joined his teammates at Beasley Coliseum last week for the Cougars’ media day.

But despite Williams being the Cougars’ top returning scorer, he did not accompany coach Kyle Smith to San Francisco for the Pac-12’s media day Wednesday (sophomore forward Efe Abogidi and newcomer guard Tyrell Roberts did).

Williams, a junior from Seattle, is potentially facing four misdemeanor charges after allegedly getting into a scuffle with bouncers at Valhalla last month when he tried to gain entrance to the bar using a fake ID, police said.

WSU declined to comment on the situation Thursday when asked if Williams is serving a suspension from the team.

The case was referred to the Whitman County Prosecutor’s office, but as of Thursday, charges are still pending.

The next several questions were all posed by @ben_thoen:

Who do you expect the starting five to be?

Way, way too early to tell.

OK, Abogidi and Dishon Jackson will undoubtedly be locked in as Coug standouts in the paint for as long as they live in Pullman.

Williams is a preseason first-team All-Pac-12 pick who is among the best defenders in the Pac-12. Oh, and he scored 72 combined points in a two-game weekend last season, so pencil him in as a starter, too.

Otherwise, I count four guards who will vie for starts.

Smith has high hopes for Roberts, the Division II transfer who can light up a scoreboard.

Jefferson Koulibaly might have started some games as a true freshman last year if not for an arm injury that sidelined him all season. He’s expected to be a solid perimeter defender.

Sophomore T.J. Bamba’s offseason strides have been noted by Smith. Bamba is arguably the Cougars’ strongest guard, in terms of his physical stature.

Then there’s Michael Flowers, the senior South Alabama transfer who was one of the nation’s top scorers last season.

Reliable junior D.J. Rodman started 10 games at wing last year. Sophomore forward Andrej Jakimovski made 19 starts and flashed a bright upside – he’s 6-8 and can shoot, handle the ball and distribute.

Personally, I’m most eager to see true freshman Mouhamed Gueye, the four-star recruit from Senegal who stands 6-foot-11 and has a wingspan rivaling Abogidi’s.

Imagine Abogidi (6-10), Jackson (6-10) and Gueye on the court at the same time. Sheesh. When’s the last time you saw size like that at Beasley Coliseum?

There are maybe a dozen lineups WSU could trot out, and I’d bet we won’t see a consistent “starting five” this season.

Who could surprisingly get redshirted?

Point guard Ryan Rapp.

No disrespect to the junior from Australia – he has sparked the Cougars in stretches over the past two seasons.

But there was an influx of guards this offseason. WSU has four promising new pieces in its backcourt, all of whom might be superior options.

To be clear, this is a complete guess.

Who do you see taking the biggest step forward?

The second-year frontcourt – Abogidi and Jackson – and Bamba, who I believe will surprise some Pac-12 fans.

Smith often says that the most significant leap in development for a player comes between freshman and sophomore seasons.

Abogidi and Jackson are a step ahead. They started, and often starred, in the majority of WSU’s games last season.

Bamba’s name was brought up by Smith in multiple offseason interviews. He came into college with a next-level body and found a smooth fit in WSU’s defense-focused system.

After averaging 13.7 minutes per each of his 23 games last season, expect Bamba to assume a larger role and take more shots.

Who has been the consistently best interview?

Honestly, you can’t beat a good chat with Kyle Smith. He’s affable, and his transparency is refreshing.

As for players, Williams has been great in front of a mic. He’s vibrant and honest. You’ll rarely get a bland quote.

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