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Washington State rewind: Cougars disjointed for stretches in season-opening defeat

Utah State Aggies wide receiver Deven Thompkins (13) celebrates after he scored a touchdown to defeat WSU in the final seconds of the second half of college football game on Saturday, Sep 4, 2021, at Gesa Field in Pullman, Wash. WSU lost the game 26-23.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

Washington State squandered a 12-point fourth-quarter lead and opened a much-anticipated season with a stunning loss against a nonconference opponent the Cougars were expected to stomp by three scores.

WSU looked out of sorts at times, disjointed early on offense and late on defense. That opened the door for Utah State, which sealed a 26-23 victory in the final seconds for its first road win over a power conference team in 50 years.

It’s clear the Cougs still have plenty to sort out. Saturday only spawned more questions, like: What’s up at quarterback (again)? Will WSU tinker with its defensive personnel? And will coach Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense stick with a similar formula, or switch things up?

Up next, the Cougars host Portland State – a mid-tier FCS team that played one exhibition game this spring and went without a 2020 season. WSU will probably hope to fine-tune in this one ahead of its Pac-12 slate.

But without getting too far ahead of ourselves, let’s look back on the Cougars’ dispiriting and particularly strange Week 1 loss.

Questions regarding personnel

There were some unexpected appearances in the Cougars’ opener. By the time it ended, it felt like more uncertainties had been introduced to the depth chart.

In an unusual turn of events, WSU ended up playing each of the three quarterbacks who had been competing for the No. 1 spot throughout fall camp.

Starter Jarrett Guarantano exited early in the second quarter after sustaining an unspecified injury on a sack. He was hit-and-miss on three possessions, which amounted to three Cougar points.

Sophomore Jayden de Laura, aided by two first-half takeaways, had the Cougars offense in the red zone four times, yet WSU had to settle for three field-goal tries. One, a 31-yard Dean Janikowski attempt midway through the second, doinked off the left upright.

“There were a couple of plays we didn’t capitalize on,” de Laura said.

The game’s turning point came on de Laura’s final significant drive of the night. He’d guided the Cougars about 60 yards on six plays, reaching the Aggies’ 2-yard line on a 10-yard scramble outside early in the fourth period.

“Coming into the game, I had the right mindset, like, ‘OK, I don’t know what’s gonna happen but if my name gets called I’m gonna be ready,’ ” de Laura said.

“I’d say I got more comfortable as the game progressed.”

Rather than let de Laura cap the series, the Cougs opted for a head-scratcher at the goal line.

De Laura, who at this point in the game had seemingly found his rhythm, was pulled.

Third-stringer Cammon Cooper was sent in, only to line up in a wishbone formation and hand the ball off for two negative plays. The Aggies had the Cooper-specific package telegraphed.

De Laura, his flow disturbed, trotted back in. A delay of game cost the Cougs, then de Laura misfired on a third-and-11 pass.

When WSU entered the red zone on that last possession, ESPN had the Cougars’ odds of winning at 98%.

Of course, you remember what happened next.

Another field goal ultimately did not provide WSU the separation required to put it away. Instead of going up by 16 points – likely too large a deficit for Utah State to make up in 12 minutes – WSU led by 12. The Aggies took advantage, putting together two methodical possessions to stun the Cougs.

“We left a lot of stuff out there on the field,” said receiver Calvin Jackson Jr., referring to field goals. “You can’t do that. You won’t win a game by doing that.”

Is it possible the QB competition is up in the air again? Rolovich didn’t offer clarity on the severity of Guarantano’s injury, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Elsewhere, the Cougars sent out backups and rotated players at a surprising rate.

Nine wide receivers got time, and finding a consistent target proved difficult.

Jackson and Travell Harris, both senior slot pass-catchers, were eyed most. But the usually steady Harris dropped an open touchdown late in the second quarter, and the drive resulted in a field goal. Starting outside receiver Donovan Ollie had two nice grabs, one on a 12-yard slant TD in the third, but rookie De’Zhaun Stribling was blanketed. He had 5 yards on two snags.

Among the five backups who played, only Joey Hobert logged a catch.

Five linebackers alternated in, and 11 defensive linemen took the field, including youngsters like Quinn Roff, Andrew Edson and Ty Garay-Harris.

The D-line faced some criticism after the game.

The unit didn’t record a single sack and didn’t put adequate pressure on Utah State quarterback Logan Bonner in the last two drives, during which Utah State amassed 149 of its 439 total yards.

Aggies runners often broke through the first level, too. Utah State piled up 220 rushing yards on 45 tries.

On their lengthy penultimate possession, the Aggies leaned on the ground game, rushing for 53 yards on 10 carries.

Ten Cougars saw snaps in the secondary. WSU’s backfield fared well in the first half, but Utah State’s passers began to detect holes in the soft coverage later on, and finished the game completing an efficient 64% of their throws for 219 yards.

The Cougs gave Aggie speedster Deven Thompkins too much space on too many occasions. He totaled 30 of his 94 yards on three of his eight catches – including the 7-yard clincher with 11 seconds remaining – during Utah State’s winning drive.

WSU was without rotational corner Chris Jackson, who watched from the sideline in street clothes. Senior safety Daniel Isom left the game clutching his arm after taking an awkward fall midway through the first quarter.

Bonner went 7 of 7 for 48 yards on the game-winning series. Backup WSU nickel Armauni Archie was tagged with a pass interference penalty with 20 seconds left. It moved Utah State from the Cougar 22 to the 7-yard line.

In comparison, Utah State’s defensive front was better than WSU’s. The Aggies – who ranked 114th last year in FBS rushing defense – compiled nine tackles for loss, two sacks and three quarterback hurries. WSU had four TFLs and pressured Utah State QBs twice.

The Aggies, playing under a first-year coaching staff, came across as more comfortable offensively than WSU, and they sustained possessions for longer, running 20 more plays than the Cougs.

It’s not like WSU’s defense was porous throughout – just when it mattered most. The Cougs kept the Aggies out of the end zone until crunch time, surrendering just three points in the first half and permitting their offense time to get in sync.

Utah State’s fast-paced attack appeared to discombobulate WSU down the stretch. The Aggies were on the ball before the ref had time to set it.

One has to wonder whether WSU will make adjustments to its defensive personnel/rotation this week after its late miscommunications.

Concerning the Cougar offensive line, senior center Brian Greene was sidelined late in the first quarter and replaced by sophomore Konner Gomness. Greene’s status is uncertain.

On the running game/play-calling

Early in the third quarter, senior captain running back Max Borghi took a handoff and angled toward the sideline, then exhibited the burst of acceleration that has made him a professional prospect.

Borghi zoomed past everyone for a 64-yard score – easily the brightest moment of the night for a WSU offense that was short on explosive plays.

He had six carries for 6 yards prior to that. He’d been mostly running into walls on between-the-tackles attempts. But for someone like Borghi, one snap might alter a game.

So it was no doubt confounding that he only touched the ball four more times after his electric scoring scamper.

Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense favored the pass heavily Saturday despite a recent history of Utah State struggling against the run – though it’d be fair to point out the Aggies stocked up on transfers defensively.

All told, WSU attempted 35 passes and ran the ball 26 times with at least 10 quarterback scrambles on called passing plays, so it may have been closer to 44 passing plays against 16 rushing.

Borghi had 11 carries for 85 yards and Deon McIntosh took four handoffs for two yards. Wisconsin transfer Nakia Watson played sparingly and didn’t touch the ball.

Perhaps WSU neglected to run it more because Utah State was sending heavy pressure on early downs.

In any case, the Cougs’ passing game left much to be desired. De Laura and Guarantano combined to pass 20 of 35 for 206 yards and one score. De Laura tested his arm with several shots flung toward the end zone in the first half, but didn’t connect. Guarantano stuck to quick releases in WSU’s short concepts.

Just six of 20 Cougar receptions went for more than 10 yards. Two big gainers were negated by holding penalties. WSU receivers regularly made grabs within 3-5 yards of the line of scrimmage.

De Laura did, however, provide a spark with his feet. He escaped the pocket in a flash multiple times, picking up 42 yards on seven totes.