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With coach’s future uncertain, Washington State shows more progress in third straight win

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – If that ends up being Nick Rolovich’s finale at Washington State, one can’t help but wonder what might have been.

WSU has clearly turned a corner. Eleven games into the second-year coach’s tenure, the Cougars look like the bowl-worthy team that was promised.

After letting an 11-point, fourth-quarter lead slip against Stanford, the resilient Cougars punched back, reclaiming the advantage when Max Borghi plunged in from 2 yards out with 1 minutes, 30 seconds left.

WSU’s edge rushers posted a pair of sacks to clinch a 34-31 victory. It was their third win in a row under Rolovich, who will find out in the coming days whether he’ll be allowed to remain coach of the ever-improving Cougars – per a state COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

The Cougars swarmed their embattled boss, dousing him with Gatorade before sharing a group hug.

“It means a lot having a coach that, first of all, is a players’ coach and truly understands us,” slotback Travell Harris said. “He’s an outstanding coach. He’s a coach we all love to play for.”

Rolovich said after the game he’s awaiting an email from the school that will reveal whether his religious exemption application has been approved.

The Cougars are hot, but it won’t matter if their coach is relieved of his duties this week.

“I’m going to come to work tomorrow, get ready for BYU, gonna grade this film,” Rolovich said. “I don’t think this is in my hands. I’ve been settled for a long time on (my decision). I believe it’s going to work out the right way.

“I like being here. I like being the coach here. I love these kids. I’ve just got faith in (the process).”

WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura linked up with Calvin Jackson Jr. on a high-arching 41-yard pass to jump-start the Cougars’ winning drive. Four plays later, Borghi broke a tackle outside and sprawled out for a score.

Cougars edge Ron Stone Jr. posted a sack on Cardinal QB Tanner McKee, then Brennan Jackson and Quinn Roff combined on another, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Jackson, clinching the victory.

“They kept trying to figure it out and never let doubt creep in and take hold like it has earlier in the year,” Rolovich said.

It appeared WSU (4-3, 3-2 Pac-12) might crumble when the Cardinal (3-4, 2-3) rattled off 15 consecutive points in the fourth quarter, taking advantage of a questionable third-down pass-interference call and a poor third-down throw by de Laura on the ensuing possession – he had Jackson wide open on a play that might have secured the win.

The Cougars’ offense had gone cold from late in the third quarter – after Borghi powered in for his first TD – all the way down to the wire, but they showed resolve late in a back-and-forth affair for the second week in a row.

“We knew what we were capable of, but we didn’t start (this year) how we wanted to,” Borghi said. “I seems like we’ve been coming together more as a team, especially offensively.”

In a win over Oregon State last weekend, WSU’s run-and-shoot was unproductive in a first half it spent shooting itself in the foot. After the break, the floodgates opened and the Cougs fired on all cylinders.

Their offense was similarly uninspiring early against the Cardinal, but again, the Cougars snapped out of a sluggish start – a scoreless first period – behind electrifying quarterback play from de Laura, and effective play calls for Borghi, who had perhaps his best day of the season (17 carries, 89 yards, two TDs).

De Laura completed 7 of 11 passes in the second quarter for 120 yards after a first quarter that featured only one first down for the WSU offense. He fired three touchdown passes and kept Stanford guessing with a mix of quick outs, crossers and deep heaves down the sidelines.

In all, he went 17 of 30 for 289 yards and three scores.

“He’s really matured a lot, and he’s fearless,” Borghi said of de Laura.

De Laura lofted a well-placed 32-yard TD to Harris in the second quarter, then floated a pinpoint ball to Jackson a drive later, putting incredible touch on the scoring pass despite absorbing a big hit as he let it fly.

With just over 3 minutes until the half, the crafty sophomore avoided pressure on a fourth-and-1 from the Cardinal’s 9-yard line and threw on the run to an open C.J. Moore, who dropped a touchdown that would have been his first reception as a Cougar.

No matter. The WSU defense, as has become its M.O., was resolute, forcing a takeaway on the ensuing play when tackle Ahmir Crowder stripped the ball from Cardinal tailback Nathanial Peat.

“They’re incredible, probably the best defense I’ve played with since I’ve been here,” Borghi said.

De Laura didn’t waste another red-zone opportunity, connecting with freshman De’Zhaun Stribling on a crossing route for a 10-yard score.

Stanford’s top statistical facet entering the game was its passing defense. The Cardinal’s secondary, however, couldn’t hold the Cougars’ shifty slotbacks – three of whom had 70 or more yards – in check in WSU’s 20-point second quarter.

After its late third-quarter score, the Cougars gained just 2 net yards over two series. Nothing had signaled that their run-and-shoot would pull it out.

Soon, WSU was rushing the field to celebrate an exceptionally memorable win with a coach whose future in Pullman is up in the air.

“These kids are incredible,” Rolovich said. “I love being around them. They’re playing their hearts out for this university. I think they’ve got a real good bond. They’ll remember this for the rest of their lives.”

The Cougs’ first quarter was anything but auspicious. They appeared sluggish with possession, going three-and-out three times. Their shallow coverage was picked apart by Stanford’s quick passing game, and they were tagged with a flag for targeting, disqualifying standout linebacker Jahad Woods for the day.

They didn’t record a first down until the final play of the opening period.

Stanford rode an efficient passing game to 13 points. Somebody forgot to pick up Cardinal receiver Benjamin Yurosek, who hauled in a 45-yard touchdown deep over the top. Pressure from WSU’s edges held Stanford to two field-goal tries while the Coug offense tried to find a rhythm.

“Whether it was when we lost tough ones or were in tough situations the past couple of weeks, there was never finger-pointing,” Rolovich said. “This team enjoys being around each other and understands that it’s going to take all of them.”