PULLMAN – A season-opening upset loss has not demoralized Washington State.
This Cougars football team is far more persevering than the last one, according to coach Nick Rolovich.
“I would have been a lot more worried about the future of this team if this happened a year ago,” he said.
Rolovich was referring to a developed mindset of maturity among these Cougars, and how this squad has improved in readily acknowledging its shortcomings and maintaining its composure despite adverse situations.
Much of the talk surrounding the contemporary Cougs has centered on their veteran experience and leadership qualities, which weren’t as abundant during a 1-3 season that saw WSU implode when tested by setbacks.
Rolovich doesn’t expect this group to be fazed by its Week 1 showing when it hosts Portland State at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“I think this team is open to the truth enough to look at themselves honestly, and there’s a tight bond that I think adds to the effect of that conversation,” Rolovich said.
Several Cougar players have been frank throughout the week when highlighting what went wrong for their position groups in the Utah State game, during which the Aggies hung around and eventually scored 15 points in the final 6 minutes to humble WSU 26-23.
Edge rusher Willie Taylor III said the Cougs’ defensive front struggled with Utah State’s up-tempo offense and “got tired.”
Looking ahead to Portland State, Taylor said WSU will be revitalized.
“We’ve forgotten about last week. We’ve moved on from it,” he said.
“The energy now is like, we’re … ready to win, we’re ready to come out and play on Saturday.”
Safety George Hicks III acknowledged that the “moment did get too big for us” when Utah State began its late comeback.
“We let routine plays that we had seen throughout the week last week in practice and also that they had shown throughout the game, and we just didn’t execute,” he said.
“You can’t get it back. You gotta move on. Don’t let this one game affect how we play this coming Saturday.”
Guard Jarrett Kingston said the offensive line didn’t pick up pressure well in the passing game versus Utah State and “could’ve gotten more push” in the ground game, which was mostly bottled up.
Receiver Donovan Ollie thought there might have been some “first-game jitters” contributing to WSU’s shaky passing game, in which receivers seemed to have trouble separating.
The Cougars had lapses in all three phases of the game against the Aggies, and as multiple players have summed it up, “left a lot of plays on the field.”
Their passing game wasn’t too efficient and their running backs often hit walls. They missed a short field goal in the second quarter. On defense, their front regressed down the stretch, permitting chunk gains on the ground during the Aggies’ penultimate drive. And their secondary had a few too many holes on Utah State’s winning, pass-heavy possession.
Rolovich took the blame for a “subpar” offensive showing that included a 3-of-11 third-down conversion rate, and WSU’s failure to seal the win when the Cougars had the ball on the 2-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
In hopes of preserving quarterback Jayden de Laura’s health, Rolovich trotted out third-stringer Cammon Cooper, who handed the ball off for two negative plays out of a wishbone formation.
“You start at: Could we have executed better? But did we give them enough looks at it over the last couple of weeks (of practice)?” Rolovich said. “Both of them fall on coaching, in my opinion.”
Rolovich didn’t think the running game was too effective early, but it’s a fair criticism, he acknowledged, that the Cougs didn’t employ Max Borghi enough. The senior touched the ball 12 times.
Rolovich settles on de Laura at quarterback
The coach provided a more definitive answer Wednesday when the subject of WSU’s starting quarterback came up during his media session after practice.
“I plan on going with Jayden,” Rolovich said.
De Laura relieved injured starter Jarrett Guarantano, who exited Saturday’s game after being slammed hard to the turf on a sack early in the second quarter.
De Laura sparked a lagging offense with his feet and Rolovich “loved his energy, his communication on the sideline – tons of growth there.”
Rolovich pointed to de Laura’s attitude and leadership traits above his play-making abilities.
“I think Jayden deserves a ton of credit,” Rolovich said. “He proved a maturity level, a growth that maybe he wasn’t in a situation to prove during camp a whole lot.
“I was thoroughly impressed with the growth that young man has gone through.”
When the sophomore from Hawaii learned late last week that he’d be Guarantano’s backup, he handled the news respectably.
“He was down when we didn’t name him the starter, which he should be, but he didn’t throw his helmet down, jump in the transfer portal,” Rolovich said. “He put his head down, went to work and was here for his teammates. I think that’s something everyone can respect.”
De Laura, the Cougars’ starter in all four games last year, was erratic through the air, completing 12 of 22 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown. He added 42 rushing yards on seven carries.
Perhaps factoring into the decision is that Guarantano’s status remains unclear.
Also uncertain is the health of senior center Brian Greene, who disappeared from the game midway through the first quarter. Sophomore Konner Gomness filled in for the remainder of the night.
Rolovich did provide a positive update on senior safety Daniel Isom, who went down with an apparent arm injury in the first quarter. Isom “looks good,” Rolovich said.
Rolovich on vaccine, new WSU football procedure
WSU announced Tuesday that all fans at home games must provide either proof of a vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to attend, beginning in October.
“We’re just trying to keep people safe,” said Rolovich, who has been mum on whether he’ll receive a vaccine in the wake of a new state mandate that requires educational employees to either get immunized, or provide a legitimate medical or religious exemption. “It’s about giving the team, the fans an opportunity to enjoy Cougar football and I think that’s been the plan the whole time. It doesn’t affect us and the job we’re trying to do a whole lot. We gotta concentrate on getting better on this field.”
Rolovich announced July 21 that he had elected to not receive a vaccine for “private” reasons.
He has been criticized for declining to elaborate on his intentions regarding Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate. He was asked again Monday if he would get the shot.
“My thought process hasn’t changed and I’m not going to address some of those personal deals in public,” he said.
A follow-up question concerned whether the controversy surrounding Rolovich’s position has been a distraction to the team.
“I personally have been looking out for it,” he said. “I don’t feel that way. I can’t speak on everybody. I have told them all, if there’s something they want to get off their chest or talk about, or converse about my situation, they’re welcome to.
“But I’ve been thoroughly impressed with their focus with all the stuff surrounding my personal decision, and some of the other things that have popped up over the last year or so.”
Rolovich and WSU are facing a lawsuit filed by former receiver Kassidy Woods, who alleges that his rights were violated when he was kicked off the team after joining the WeAreUnited player movement and complaining about potential COVID-19 exposure.
“This isn’t an industry where anyone feels good about a student-athlete not having a good experience,” Rolovich said Monday. “So I think that’s about all I can say on it.”
Rypien visits Cougs
Mark Rypien, a former WSU great at quarterback, attended practice Wednesday and provided words of encouragement to the team after the session.
“Like every Coug I’ve met that’s played here, it’s a very similar message of still feeling a part of it. He said ‘we’ a lot. It wasn’t ‘you guys,’” Rolovich said. “He talked in a collective sense. That’s very common from the alumni I’ve gotten a chance to meet. … He emphasized how much he enjoys being a Coug. I think that’s wonderful for the young guys to hear.”
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