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Two-minute drill: Keys to victory for Washington State against Utah State

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

Don’t take your eyes off …

Will Washington State’s run-and-shoot offense operate with fluidity after a legitimate offseason of installation? Maybe a more critical question is who takes the first snap at quarterback, and how in tune will he look with Nick Rolovich’s distinctive, quick-hitting scheme? It appears Utah State and the Cougar faithful will have to wait until kickoff to learn the victor of WSU’s QB competition between sophomore Jayden de Laura – the starter in last year’s truncated, four-game campaign – and grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano. It’s been the Cougars’ primary question mark in the months ahead of Saturday’s season opener at Gesa Field. The offensive skill positions, in general, should be highlighted for evaluation. WSU’s receiving corps lost two key pieces to the transfer portal in the offseason, and had standout Renard Bell sustain a season-ending ACL tear in the summer. But the Cougs seem to like their depth in the WR room. Who’ll be targeted most by de Laura/Guarantano – particularly on the outside, where experience is lacking – and how many pass-catchers will see playing time? With the unknowns at quarterback and receiver, perhaps it’s time for the usually pass-happy Cougs to morph into a run-first team. We’ll finally get a taste of how WSU parcels out the carries among its trio of talented backs in Max Borghi, Deon McIntosh and Nakia Watson.

When WSU has the ball …

Don’t be fooled by the Aggies’ porous defensive statistics in 2020. The visitors loaded up on FBS talent, with their front seven benefiting greatly from a new coaching staff’s work in the NCAA transfer portal. On the other hand, it’s worth pointing out that Utah State’s rushing defense was one of the worst in the FBS last season. The Aggies ranked 114th in the country in that category, surrendering 224.7 yards per game. A complete turnaround in a single offseason would be nothing but remarkable. If similar shortcomings are prevalent at all on Utah State’s side, the Cougar ball-carriers could run wild. The run-and-shoot tends to favor the pass about 60% of the time, but Rolovich said he’d consider going run-heavy if the ground game consistently bears fruit.

When Utah State has the ball …

As senior middle linebacker Justus Rogers put it: “They like to churn out plays fast.” First-year Utah State coach Blake Anderson employed a prolific up-tempo attack during his seven mostly successful seasons at Arkansas State – his Red Wolves tenure included two Sun Belt Conference crowns and two bowl titles. It wasn’t rare for his offense to produce around 500 yards and 40 points in a game. The Aggies have a tested new QB in Logan Bonner, one of four Arkansas State transfers. He’s apparently locked in a competition for the start with mobile junior Andrew Peasley. Either way, Utah State boasts an accomplished group of receivers that figures to be a bright spot this season. WSU defensive coordinator Jake Dickert intends to rotate players frequently, but will there be enough time in between snaps to do so? Conditioning, especially in the secondary, has been an emphasis for the Cougs this week.

Did you know?

Asked twice this week about his concerns regarding Utah State, the Cougars’ second-year coach underlined special teams and one Aggie who can single-handedly shift a game’s momentum. Holding down senior return man Savon Scarver might be WSU’s most daunting task. Scarver has taken six kickoffs to the house in his career, a total which ties him for No. 5 in NCAA history. The 5-foot-11, 175-pounder from Las Vegas was a consensus All-American as a sophomore in 2018. Rolovich’s Hawaii teams managed to keep Scarver out of the end zone. “There’s no doubt he’s a dynamic player with the ball in his hand,” Rolovich said. “I spent the last few years in the Mountain West and got to see him come up. It seemed like almost every other week he was special teams player of the week in the Mountain West.”