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Washington State rewind: Examining the Cougs’ run game and coaching adjustments

Washington State Cougars running back Max Borghi (21) dusts off his jersey after scoring a touchdown during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, Oct 23, 2021, on Gesa Field in Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. BYU won the game 21-19.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Washington State endured a week of turmoil and still managed to field a competitive product against a skilled opponent.

Although the Cougars fell 21-19 Saturday to BYU – which has now topped four Pac-12 Conference teams – they should have some reason to like their chances of finishing this season out on a high note.

WSU (4-4) needs to win two of its final four games to reach bowl eligibility. In its way are defensive heavyweight Arizona State, conference power Oregon, winless Arizona and underperforming rival Washington.

It might well come down to the wire, but securing two more victories under interim coach Jake Dickert certainly doesn’t seem out of the question considering the well-matched showing in his debut.

With that, let’s look back:

Borghi and the WSU run game

WSU buffs know mainstay running back Max Borghi most for his exceptional acceleration, maneuverability outside the tackles and next-level cutting ability inside.

“Everyone talks about the player. I’m going to talk about the person,” Dickert said.

Perhaps more important than his career day on the field Saturday, Borghi was one of eight team captains to help guide the Cougars as they plugged away through an unpleasant situation.

“He did a great job of leading the charge of where we wanted to go and setting the example, and being a great voice and leader,” Dickert said. “We all know what he’s capable of. We all know Max’s talent, but the person inside matched the player (Saturday).”

Dickert spent parts of last week getting more familiar with WSU’s offensive players. Before being named acting head coach last Monday, he wasn’t really acquainted with them on a personal level – he didn’t know them much beyond the practice reps they’d taken against his defenders.

As defensive coordinator, naturally, Dickert’s focus was largely on that side of the ball. But after a few days at the helm, he’s starting to get a feel for the character among the run-and-shooters. He was especially impressed with Borghi’s “demeanor, work ethic and leadership.

“And for him to have success (Saturday) is fun to watch,” Dickert said.

Borghi set a career-high in carries for the second consecutive game. He logged 17 rushing attempts in a 34-31 win over Stanford, then took 18 handoffs versus BYU. Former WSU coach Nick Rolovich indicated after the Stanford game that the Cougars found Borghi’s ideal workload in the run-and-shoot to be between 15-20 carries per game.

The star senior back gained 83 yards, his eighth-most in a single contest in 35 career outings. He scored three touchdowns on the ground – something he had never accomplished before.

Borghi increased his career rushing TD total to 28, passing WSU great Jerome Harrison for second on the all-time rushing scoring list. Borghi’s 37 total touchdowns in his career ties him for second in overall scoring with receiver Gabe Marks.

Borghi had 65 total carries entering the Stanford game. Two weeks later, he’s up to 100. He was also targeted in the passing game more against BYU than he’d been in any other game this year, registering 36 yards on four catches.

Borghi’s uptick in production might be attributed to an injury sustained by his backfield compatriot, fellow veteran Deon McIntosh.

McIntosh disappeared from the lineup midway through the second quarter against Stanford, and after halftime was on crutches with a wrap around his right ankle.

The Cougars tried one run with third-stringer Nakia Watson versus BYU – a stuffed 1-yarder late in the first quarter – then completely abandoned using the Wisconsin transfer for the remainder of the game.

Borghi was the only other WSU running back to see time. His numbers were nice, but the day featured mixed results overall. Borghi was wrapped up and held under 3 yards on 10 rushing attempts – excluding his two short TD runs. He often tried to bounce outside, but there was seldom room to do so.

The Cougars have been limited to less than 100 yards on the ground in half of their games this season.

On the other end, WSU has conceded more than 200 yards rushing to four of its eight opponents this year. BYU clearly game-planned to run the ball often against a WSU defense that has struggled in that regard.

BYU rumbled for 253 yards on 46 carries, an average of 5.5 yards per try (minus sacks). Sturdy back Tyler Allgeier posted 191 yards on 32 attempts, and was never brought down for a loss.

The visiting Cougars entered the game splitting their passes and rushes at almost exactly 50% this season. Precisely two-thirds of their plays Saturday were called runs.

“We didn’t do our best, as far as wrapping up and squeezing, and taking angles,” Dickert said of the rushing defense.

“We got a little bit leaned on in the second half. We didn’t have our opportunities to take the ball away.”

BYU’s ballcarriers never turned it over. WSU had forced at least one takeaway in every other game this season.

The Cougars from Provo, Utah, banked on the run game in back-to-back five-minute scoring drives in the third quarter, and in the clock-killing four-minute series to seal the victory.

The previous week, Stanford – which entered the game last in the Pac-12 in rushing – ran the ball 31 times for 99 yards against 32 passes. The Cardinal had been throwing the ball the vast majority of the time prior to that game.

A week earlier, Oregon State gouged the Cougars on the ground for 309 yards on 45 attempts.

WSU will next face an opponent in Arizona State that ranks third in the Pac-12 in per-game rushing (203.7 yards), second in yards per carry (5.4) and is first in rushing TDs (22).

The coaching transition

Dickert and the staff were “learning on the fly.”

The Cougars’ staff last week had to quickly replace four assistants, all of whom were let go by the school last Monday with Rolovich for failing to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Dickert was at the helm of a team for the first time in his 14-year career, and called his debut a “learning experience.”

He must learn how to properly balance his responsibilities as both a head coach and defensive coordinator.

Offensive coordinator Brian Smith, who’d spent the past several weeks assisting the offense from the box, took over playcalling duties from the sideline.

WSU’s run-and-shoot offense slowed its pace. In between plays, Smith walked a few yards onto the field to meet with quarterback Jayden de Laura.

The Cougars’ three most successful drives averaged out to about five minutes apiece – WSU’s offense had been playing significantly faster than that in recent weeks.

Cougars players said the transition was relatively seamless, and didn’t impact their performance much.

Dickert said it went about as well as possible under the circumstances.

“Brian’s and (special teams coordinator Kyle Krantz’s) communication was really good,” he said. “I thought it was really smooth. There were just little things I can get better at, that we can get better at.”

A new face was on the sideline in offensive line coach Dennis McKnight, a run-and-shoot vet who was brought on last week. Quarterbacks coach Dan Morrison, another recent hire, watched from above. Dickert said the two assumed observer roles at practices last week and haven’t had time yet to teach hands-on because their employment wasn’t cleared until Friday.

WSU’s offense underwent periods of disjointedness, mixed in with a couple of impressive drives in which the run-and-shoot looked crisp.

There were a handful of execution errors – three drive-killing holding calls, some deep misfires into traffic from de Laura and a mishandled snap on an unsuccessful PAT – but despite the coaching turnover, the Cougs seemingly limited communication mishaps.

“It was a smooth transition,” slot Calvin Jackson Jr. said. “Coach Stutz (former co-OC/QBs coach Craig Stutzmann), coach Rolo, those guys are great, but at the end of the day, right now, our playcaller is Coach Smitty, and he did a really good job getting us ready, along with Coach Dre (WRs coach Andre Allen). At first, it was different, but you can’t sit here and sulk.”

Dickert credited his captains – Borghi, Travell Harris, Abraham Lucas, Liam Ryan, Jahad Woods, Jaylen Watson, Daniel Isom and Armani Marsh – for easing the team through the coaching turnover.

“I can’t even tell you how proud I am of that group and how they set the tempo for the week,” Dickert said. “We will get better and better as we go and keep moving forward. That’s the only thing we can do.”