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Squandered opportunity on 2-yard line leaves Washington State fans scratching their heads after Utah State 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)

PULLMAN – After searching for it much of the first half, the Washington State Cougars finally settled into an offensive groove in the third quarter behind the playmaking of Jayden de Laura and the explosive running of Max Borghi.

Then everything stalled.

De Laura, who replaced Jarrett Guarantano when WSU’s starting QB went down with an apparent left leg injury in the second half, punched in the Cougars’ second touchdown of the third quarter when he fired to Donovan Ollie on a 12-yard slant that gave the home team a 14-11 lead.

On WSU’s next drive, the dual threat sophomore led the Cougars on another impressive drive. A 5-yard rush from Borghi was followed by an 8-yard scramble from de Laura, who lured Utah State into a 15-yard pass interference penalty, completed 5- and 13-yard throws to De’Zhaun Stribling and Calvin Jackson Jr. and knifed through the Aggies’ defense for a 10-yard keeper that pushed the Cougars to the 2-yard line.

One moment, the offense was humming. The next, everything fizzled.

WSU coach Nick Rolovich pulled de Laura from the game in favor of third-string QB Cammon Cooper, who’d spent time in preseason camp working on a shotgun-style goal line package. It left many Cougar fans scratching their heads in the moment and pulling their hair out by the time the Aggies finished off a 26-23 comeback win at Gesa Field.

“I think we could have put that game away, that’s on me,” Rolovich said. “Not ending that thing with a touchdown when we got down to the 2 (yard line). I think they just executed and was good on third down, much better than us. They executed better than us.”

With Cooper and three other players in the WSU backfield, a formation that mirrored the wishbone, the QB handed off to Borghi on consecutive option plays. The Aggies collapsed on WSU’s running back both times, taking him down for a 3-yard loss and 1-yard loss.

De Laura returned to the game on the ensuing play, but was flagged for a delay of game penalty that pushed the Cougars back another 5 yards. The QB’s third-down pass attempt to Ollie was incomplete and though Dean Janikowski was able to convert on a 27-yard kick, the Cougars squandered a chance to put four more points on the board in a game they ultimately lost by three.

In his postgame press conference, Rolovich clarified the package was “a set thing for (Cooper)” and de Laura indicated he wasn’t startled when the coach took him out of the game in favor of Cooper.

“No, not at all,” de Laura said. “We work stuff at practice and if coach didn’t want to do that, it’s up to coach at the end of the day. I’m not going to be mad at whatever. It’s something we worked at practice all week.”

In total, the Cougars made five trips to the red zone and wound up with just 23 points. The Aggies got to the red zone five times and scored 26 points.

“We’ve got to capitalize on those red zone trips,” wide receiver Calvin Jackson Jr. said. “You can’t win a game with just taking a lot of field goals. They do help at the end of the day, but touchdowns are more important so obviously we want touchdowns. We gave Utah State the momentum for them to drive down the field and score, so we shot ourselves in the foot on that one.”