PULLMAN – Two weeks ago, Washington State’s prospects were bleak.
The Cougars were off to an uninspiring 1-3 start. Their touted run-and-shoot offense hadn’t done much to convince anyone, while their defense toiled to keep the team competitive. WSU collapsed in the second half of each of its defeats and the criticisms its coach faced only intensified.
Two games later, the Cougs are suddenly on the upswing.
“The mental strength and belief to keep moving forward with some of those tough losses in the beginning I think shows a ton of character of this team,” head coach Nick Rolovich said. “(It shows) the leadership and the belief in each other.”
At the midway point of the season, WSU is halfway to securing a bowl berth. The Cougars (3-3, 2-2 Pac-12) host Stanford (3-3, 2-2) at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Gesa Field.
“We’re really getting rolling right now,” WSU linebacker Justus Rogers said. “Things are clicking.”
Behind quarterback Jayden de Laura, the run-and-shoot broke out of a funk with a 491-yard showing in the Cougars’ 31-24 upset of Oregon State – easily the team’s most complete game of the year, and arguably of the Rolovich era.
WSU’s defense has been exceptionally resilient throughout the past three weeks, spearheading a 21-6 curbing of Cal on Oct. 2.
“Once we got a couple of big plays, on all sides of the ball, it just kept rolling,” WSU slotback Joey Hobert said. “That kind of momentum, it’s hard to stop.”
The Cougs are playing at their best despite the uncertainty surrounding their coach.
Any on-the-field progressions WSU makes Saturday will be overshadowed by what happens two days later.
Rolovich has applied for a religious exemption in order to comply with the state’s mandate to be either vaccinated or approved for an exemption by Monday.
The Cougars’ coach could be out of a job, right as his team is hitting stride.
“You see them getting better and better, and more aggressive and more confident in what they’re doing,” Stanford coach David Shaw said of WSU. “I think last week’s game, Oregon State/Washington State, was the Underrated Bowl – two really good teams no one talks about. But us, in our conference, we watched this game and said, ‘Man, these teams are really good.’ ”
Rolovich said the Cougars’ “standard” was elevated with the victory against OSU. WSU’s offense proved it can compete in a shootout and its defense made timely plays, including a red-zone stop to shut the door late in the fourth quarter.
“It was what we talked about needing,” Rolovich said. “To win a game that’s back-and-forth, defense holding at the end and really emotional … our guys were mentally prepared for it.”
The Cougars surely will have an edge in confidence Saturday. The Cardinal are coming off a 28-10 downer at Arizona State, during which they were held to 13 yards rushing.
Stanford’s M.O. has shifted from run-heavy to pass-first. Breakout sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee has been sharp and his receiving corps is full of rangy targets.
Overall, it’s difficult to get a read on the Cardinal, who have absorbed double-digit losses to ASU, UCLA and Kansas State, but routed USC and nipped No. 3 Oregon in overtime.
WSU can expect its secondary to be challenged. The Cardinal pass the ball on about two-thirds of their plays, and they’re one of the most efficient Pac-12 teams through the air.
“It’s an exciting form of offense,” Shaw said of the run-and-shoot. “I think we’re also bringing that to the table. We got an emerging star at quarterback and some great weapons to throw the ball to. Running game (last in the Pac-12) hasn’t been where we’d like it to be recently, but we’ve shown flashes of it early in the season.”
OSU’s offense is content to run the ball 50 times per game. Stanford might dial up 40-plus passing plays. It’ll be a quick turnaround for the Cougars, in terms of their defensive mindset.
“They’re big on their front and tight ends, too,” Rogers said. “They have some big guys that can catch, that have wide radiuses.”
Stanford’s defense excels in the pass game but has been bruised on the ground. The Cougars have been pass-happy the past two weeks, throwing it on 65% of their snaps.
Hobert said the Cardinal defense is “strategic” and morphs by the week to match its opponents’ tendencies.
“Some players are going to switch positions just to stop certain players on our side of the ball,” he said.
The Cardinal are one-point favorites, but they haven’t defeated WSU in their past four tries.