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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A Grip on Sports: A series of unfortunate decisions leads Washington State to another inexplicable loss

Washington head coach Nick Rolovich heads to the locker room after losing to Utah State in the final seconds of the season opener at Gesa Field in Pullman Saturday.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • We are not going to use that term. But isn’t it amazing how that team in Pullman somehow finds a way, just about every year, to grab defeat out of the mandibles of victory in weird, agonizing ways? And leaves its fan base writhing in pain over and over? Ya, there is a term for it all right. And we can’t post it on a family website.


• But honestly, haven’t the Cougars been leading up to this for weeks? More than a year, maybe?

Saturday’s late-game collapse was just the capper it what’s been a series of bobbles and missteps thus far in the Nick Rolovich era. An era, honestly, that has yet to bear anything but rotten fruit.

Last season’s harvest was decimated by COVID-19, as the pandemic contributed to the disappointment that took over after Rolovich’s debut win at Oregon State. That was followed up with a home loss to Oregon, two games, including the Apple Cup, lost due to a team-wide virus outbreak, then a blowout at USC, a late cancellation against California and a home meltdown vs. Utah.

None of that, however, compares to last night.

It was new year. A new season. A new beginning. An old formula.

Utah State was 1-5 itself last season. Changes were made. A new coach hired. A dozen or so transfers recruited. It seemed like the perfect opener to what will be a challenging Washington State 2021 schedule.

And yet, despite the 30,000-plus in the Martin Stadium stands, watching the action on the newly renamed GESA Field, there was a sense of dread.

It had built all summer. The lack of sure starter at quarterback. Players, especially receivers, leaving or suffering injuries. The off-field (and self-inflicted) issues with vaccination.

Then Saturday arrived. The parking lots were full of RVs and excited fans. All was well. Which is more than can be said for the WSU offense in the first half. A 6-5 score, even though the Cougars led, isn’t going to excite anyone. Heck, the loudest cheer was heard after Glenn Johnson announced the Husky score.

And there were three injuries that would haunt Washington State in the second half. Safety Daniel Isom, a leader in the secondary, left with what looked like a left-wrist injury. Center Brian Greene, the anchor of the offensive line, disappeared from the lineup in the first half. And Jarrett Guarantano, who had won that long QB battle, was sacked for a safety that cost not only the Cougars two points but also the stability of his left knee.

Enter Jayden de Laura, last year’s QB1. He brought some momentum. It built and built, helping the Cougars to a nine-point lead and a fourth-quarter drive that reached the Utah State 2-yard line. A touchdown all but puts the game away.

Instead, Rolovich opened a can of that term we won’t use.

Look, his decision-making process seemed suspect already. And it’s not just the way he’s handled his vaccination status, though that’s a highly visible part of it. It also dates back to last year’s mishandling of the Kassidy Woods situation – there is a lawsuit pending about that – and on-field decisions against USC and Utah.

Last night’s hard-to-fathom decision to bring Cammon Cooper in off the bench to run the goal-line offense with 12 minutes left just doesn’t make sense on so many levels.

De Laura had been hot. Maybe not blazing, but he had just used his feet and arm to move the Cougars 71 yards in five plays, helped in large part, sure, by 30 yards in flags thrown by the shaky Mountain West crew. Still, here was WSU, 2 yards away from a 27-11 lead that would have seemed insurmountable.

Instead Rolovich sent Cooper out to run a wishbone-looking offense, though most wishbone looks utilize your most athletic quarterback. And the Cougars’ had just been pulled.

Two Max Borghi runs lost four yards. Back in came de Laura, late. A delay of game penalty ensued. Nine yards the wrong way, all on the head coach.

A scrambled pass failed, WSU settled for a field goal and a the lead was just 23-11.

It gave the Aggies hope. And left the game in the hands of the defense, which, to be fair, had played competently all night. But with the game on the line, the Cougars couldn’t get the one stop they needed.

Nor did they use Borghi at all when they got the ball back, still leading 23-18 and needing to run out the final 5 minutes, 25 seconds. Another head-scratcher..

It was part of a series of inexplicable decisions that resulted in an easily explainable defeat. The Cougars’ leadership failed when the players needed it most.

• If you are keeping score at home, Rolovich’s tenure in Pullman has begun 1-4. On the field. Hey, that’s the same record Paul Wulff put up in his first five games. Have a nice Sunday.


WSU: Because the game began at 8 p.m. (and finished after 11:30) there is not as much S-R coverage as usual. We pass along Colton Clark’s game story (his first on the beat and probably written in a huge hurry) and Theo Lawson’s sidebar on the fourth-quarter red-zone possession. There is also the usual recap with highlights and my TV Take, one that had to be massively re-written as the game ended. … Before the game, Colton shared the quarterback news. … Talk about a bad day. The 25th-ranked volleyball team lost at UNLV and dropped to 0-4. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12 and college football, as bad as WSU’s loss to Utah State was, maybe Washington’s was worse. The 13-7 defeat may be the worst one in the school’s history. The last time UW fell to Montana? About one hundred years ago. Can the Huskies bounce back? … Injuries played a part. … The Pac-12’s day was decidedly a mixed-one. We’ve covered a couple of the huge negatives. (There are more.) The one huge positive? UCLA manhandling LSU in the second half at the Rose Bowl. Jon Wilner (and others) delves into that with his Saturday night review. … The North was 1-5 Saturday, with only Oregon’s shaky win over Fresno State – accompanied by what could be a key injuryputting the division in the win column. … Oregon State went to Purdue and couldn’t move the ball. The loss was disappointing in that regard. … California moved the ball well early, scoring on its first two possessions and then just collapsed. The Bears lost at home to Nevada. … Stanford never got its offense going against Kansas State no matter who played quarterback. … We have to return to the Rose Bowl because the Bruins’ win will resonate far beyond its walls this season. As long as LSU bounces back and UCLA continues to shine. … USC won, but it was a defensive-fueled victory. The Trojans’ offense struggled some against San Jose State. … Arizona played with more resilience against BYU than it showed last season, which bodes well for new coach Jedd Fisch. … Arizona State played earlier in the week and won. … So did Colorado. The Buffs’ home crowd helped. … In basketball news, Arizona’s most recent assistant hire earns kudos.

Gonzaga: Here it is, the early part of September, and Jim Meehan has a story delving into what is going on with Bulldog basketball. Doesn’t the guy ever rest? Don’t miss what he wrote today.

EWU: The Eagles’ win in Las Vegas was one for the ages, as they haven’t upset FBS schools all that often. Dan Thompson looks back at when those type of wins happened in the past and ranks them. No, Thursday night’s isn’t No. 1. … Around the Big Sky, former Eastern coach Beau Baldwin picked ups his first win at Cal Poly, defeating the University of San Diego. … Montana’s win in Seattle capped a pretty good weekend for the conference. … Montana State could have made it great but couldn’t hold on at Wyoming. … Northern Colorado didn’t win Friday but seemed to deal with it well.

Idaho: It looked to be a mismatch before it began and it proved to be just that. Simon Frazier couldn’t match up with the Vandals, who rolled 68-0 in the Kibbie Dome. Peter Harriman documents the near-record rout.

Indians: COVID-19 struck the Tri-City team yesterday, forcing a postponement in Spokane. It was a weird night in the High-A West as only Everett’s 10-9 win over Vancouver finished. Eugene’s game at Hillsboro was suspended in the top of the second inning.

Mariners: It may have been lost in the college football hoopla yesterday, but the M’s stayed hot thanks to Kyle Seager. The veteran third baseman stroked two three-run home runs and Seattle held off Arizona 8-5. … Seattle activated two more relievers for the stretch run.

Seahawks: Maybe Dakoda Shipley will have more than just a bit part with the Hawks. … Seattle signed one more player to its practice squad.


• Clichés bother me. Which is what the unpopular term we don’t use is. And it seems lazy. But apropos at times. Still, we vowed to ourselves not to use it, even after the Cougars blow a 12-point fourth-quarter lead in an easily avoidable way. It’s tough, but we held strong today. Until later …