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Countdown to kickoff: Washington State opens against somewhat unpredictable Aggies

By Colton Clark Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Nick Rolovich spends his time alone on nights before game days, pondering various scenarios and poring over the play chart in a silent room.

“I try to envision the situations that may arise in a game,” the second-year Washington State football coach said earlier this week of his Friday evening routine.

Before he heads to bed, Rolovich switches off the bathroom light and showers in darkness. It’s another meditative technique, which helps him center his mind on the next day’s opponent and its potential courses of action.

He’s kept the tradition since his playing days at Hawaii in the early 2000s under coach June Jones.

“June Jones was very big on visualization, seeing things happen before they happen,” Rolovich said. “I think it mentally prepares you for when things happen on game day that are spontaneous.”

Rolovich could be awake and reflecting for longer than usual ahead of WSU’s opener. This one requires some extra thought.

The Cougars kick off their season at 8 p.m. Saturday at Gesa Field against a relatively unpredictable opponent in Utah State.

“The unknowns of the first game,” Rolovich said when asked what might keep him up Friday night.

“With new coaches, the first game is even more of an uncertainty.”

WSU is a heavy favorite over the visitors from the Mountain West Conference, but the Cougars’ game prep this week has undoubtedly been challenging.

They expect Blake Anderson, the Aggies’ first-year coach, to send out a breakneck brand of offense comparable to the one that distinguished Arkansas State from 2014-20 – when Anderson was in charge.

“We’re pretty confident they’ll use a high level of tempo, so preparing for that has been emphasized,” Rolovich said.

“The speed, the uncomfortableness (of defenses), those types of things they prey on.”

Anderson’s Red Wolves leaned on the pass and were among the most explosive offensive outfits in the FBS en route to six straight bowl berths.

Beyond Anderson’s offensive style, it’s hard to estimate much.

The Aggies’ offensive coordinator was at Central Florida for the past three years, so perhaps there are even a few tweaks on that end.

Their defensive coordinator assisted at Miami for the past five years. Anderson hired position coaches from Texas Tech, Massachusetts and Abilene Christian, and filled a couple of roles with former Arkansas State co-workers.

Then he took to the transfer portal, and landed 15 signees from FBS programs, including eight from Power Five schools and a handful of Arkansas State standouts who followed their coach.

At WSU, the film study has been plentiful and far-reaching. The Cougars cannot depend solely on the tape from Utah State’s 2020 season, which it finished with a 1-5 record and ranked near the bottom of the FBS in both total offense and defense.

“The DC coming from Miami means we’re gonna be spending some time watching them, and watching Utah State for personnel,” offensive coordinator Brian Smith said. “They’ve had a lot of different transfers, so we’re looking into the transfers and getting a feel for what that personnel looks like. These first games are interesting with a new staff.”

Like WSU, the Aggies are also keeping mum on who’ll get the nod at quarterback. It’ll either be Arkansas State transfer Logan Bonner or returning starter Andrew Peasley.

The Cougs were uncertain at the midway point of this week whether they’d go with sophomore Jayden de Laura or grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano.

Rolovich is comfortable trotting out either. In hopes of catching Utah State off guard, he won’t be announcing a starter publicly before kickoff.

Because Utah State’s defensive tendencies are unclear, WSU plans to be adapting on the fly.

“We gotta have great communication, great observance by the receivers, the quarterbacks, the coaches to kinda diagram or diagnose what their plan is and adjust from there,” Rolovich said.

Rolovich figures Utah State’s receiving corps to be its most dangerous position group. It excels in single coverage and boasts a blend of quick-twitch elusiveness and high-point threats.

“There’s definitely some weapons that coach Anderson came into,” Rolovich said, referring to 6-foot-6 receiver Justin McGriff and All-American return man Savon Scarver.

“(Utah State is) not gonna be a pushover, I know that.”

Anderson admitted he hasn’t had a lot of time to devote to film study on WSU because so many questions still linger regarding his own squad.

His week of game prep has likely been more clear-cut than Rolovich’s, though. Most of these Cougars have been around a while.

He anticipates a test from pro-caliber running back Max Borghi and WSU’s proven offensive line, as do all. Anderson knows there are upperclassmen dotted down the Cougars’ defensive depth chart, and he’s highlighting senior linebacker Jahad Woods and lock-down cornerback Jaylen Watson, as every opposing coach will this year.

“The experience level they have is something we don’t have right now,” Anderson said. “We’ll have to grow up very quickly.”

The Cougs, coming off a coronavirus-plagued 1-3 campaign, are three-score favorites, according to most betting lines. They will be debuting the full-fledged version of Rolovich’s unique run-and-shoot offense in front of Gesa Field’s first crowd since Nov. 23, 2019.

“I’d say it’s kinda the same as any other week, but it’s not,” WSU tackle Abe Lucas said. “It’s time to showcase what I can do, what we can do as a team.”