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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State mailbag: A continued assessment of the Cougars’ Week 1 letdown

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 9, 2021

Washington State Cougars head coach Nick Rolovich talks with quarterback Jayden de Laura (4) during the second half of college football game on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars head coach Nick Rolovich talks with quarterback Jayden de Laura (4) during the second half of college football game on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

A discouraging opener has left the Washington State faithful wondering about the Cougars’ leadership, quarterback situation (naturally) and the stability of two other position groups that were unexpectedly wobbly in Week 1.

With a single game to study, I had my work cut out for me on some of these questions.

Does the lack of a clear-cut QB starter choice create a lack of leadership in the locker room? Is that translating to the field? Seems like (Jayden) de Laura created a spark when he came in. Is this something to build on rather than continuing with vague answers?

- @Jen_Sue_82

We haven’t seen either quarterback play a full game with an entire week of prep as the No. 1 signal-caller yet. I think that’d help in terms of the Cougars’ teamwide composure.

I’d like to have a couple of more games to go on before addressing whether the quarterback position has WSU playing shaky overall.

As of now, both Jarrett Guarantano and Jayden de Laura have been commended for their leadership qualities, but it’s not like any coaches or players would admit it otherwise.

Guarantano, the Week 1 starter, went down early with an injury, so we didn’t get a taste of how poised he’d be when tested with a back-and-forth affair that went down to the wire.

De Laura was especially sound in the third quarter, but he made some misreads throughout the night that might be expected of a young player.

Again, neither has had an opportunity to showcase his full capabilities from start to finish in a game, or train for a full week knowing that he’d be the guy come Saturday.

By all appearances, the Cougars will be going with de Laura against Portland State. Coach Nick Rolovich was impressed with his mature mindset coming off the bench last weekend in the 26-23 loss to Utah State.

It feels like Saturday could be de Laura’s chance to win back the job and establish himself as the QB going forward – for the next few years perhaps.

Not a very helpful response on my part, I know, but I will say this: If de Laura torches Portland State and the Cougars glide to an easy win, it could be wise to lock him in as the starter to avoid the inconsistencies that are known to come with QB uncertainties.

What conclusions can be made about (de Laura’s) downfield accuracy, or lack thereof?

- @Avboden

Too early to tell.

De Laura may have been a bit overconfident in his arm and he didn’t often hang in the pocket. Plus, he came in cold off the bench, but at least his heaves downfield kept the Aggies honest and never resulted in a turnover.

Rolovich has discussed it before – that arm strength is not as important in his run-and-shoot offense, which mostly emphasizes quick outs and crossers.

I’m no football coach, so I won’t say the strategy is faulty, but c’mon, everyone loves a deep ball.

De Laura actually had quite a bit of success going long last season, hitting on a few shots in three of WSU’s four games. Those plays were clearly energizers.

He did appear a little out of control at times versus Utah State. In one instance, de Laura rolled left, tried to reset his feet – he got about halfway balanced before pressure closed in – and ended up lobbing a 40-yard ball toward the end zone while twisting his body. It was nearly picked off.

Perhaps he just needs to pick his spots more wisely, or develop enough comfortability in the pocket to stand firm and fire with a traditional motion – instead of scrambling outside so frequently before passing.

With the veteran presence on the team do you see a lack of leadership that can show its face in adversity like late in last week’s game? The 2-yard (Cammon) Cooper package is getting a lot of attention but does the problem run deeper than Rolovich?

- Aaron S.

WSU’s final two possessions on defense were rough, to be sure. The Cougs got hammered on the ground in the first one, then picked apart through the air on the second.

It’s difficult to put my finger on why the Cougars’ defense flipped after playing a decent all-around game beforehand. In this case, the blame should probably fall on the coaching staff.

Utah State went fast and WSU wasn’t ready for it. The Cougs couldn’t get subs in and the gaps in their defense were plentiful.

Before the Aggies’ winning drive, WSU’s offense went three-and-out. That gifted Utah State momentum.

Three conservative plays went for 2, 3 and minus-1 yards (a sack). Not sure how much you can pin that sequence on anyone except the man dialing up the calls.

Cooper’s wishbone package on the goal line has been the subject of much scrutiny, and it makes sense. De Laura was in a groove, then pulled, and two runs went nowhere – they were easy plays to predict. The Cougars were then tagged with a delay of game when they couldn’t get the call in. Whose fault was that, do you think?

I’ll say it again with this: I’m in a wait-and-see mode. Is it a leadership problem, a talent problem, a coaching problem? A combination of the three?

Personally, I’d be surprised if it turns out to be player leadership. This team has tons of experience under its belt and a handful of genuine stars.

With the amount of duress both Jarrett Guarantano and Jayden de Laura were under against Utah State, should we be worried about this experienced offensive line?

- Cody M.

A bit, especially now that WSU is without its senior center in Brian Greene.

His status for Week 2 is up in the air – football coaches tend to be hush-hush about those kinds of things – but Greene didn’t play from the second quarter onward Saturday.

It’s not always easy to get an accurate glimpse through the madness of the trenches, but from my vantage point, it seemed as though most of Utah State’s pressure was coming from up the middle.

That’d make sense, considering two of the Cougars’ most reliable players – Abe Lucas and Liam Ryan – man the outside posts.

The Aggies beefed up in their front seven this offseason, signing transfers from Texas, Miami, Michigan and a former Arkansas State linebacker who’s on the Bednarik Award watch list. Maybe that’s what it was? Maybe Utah State is just solid?

In any case, it’s no doubt disconcerting that the Aggies’ defensive front outplayed WSU’s. Utah State piled up eight tackles for loss, injured the Cougars’ quarterback and made their rushing game a nonfactor for long stretches of the game.

WSU permitted only two sacks, but its signal-callers were often running. The Cougar offense’s flow was overall disrupted because of Utah State’s defensive push on first and second downs.

I didn’t write about the O-line much during the preseason because I assumed it was the Cougars’ most settled position group.

Portland State’s “flex” defense disguises its pressure and employs several confusing looks up front, so I’ll be watching extra close this weekend.

Receivers had trouble with separation against Utah State, giving Portland State a blueprint to follow. Do you anticipate more crossing routes by WRs and wheel routes by the motion WRs and RBs with this offense to break up the physical coverage and use the team’s speed?

- Ben G.

WSU’s passing game was at its most effective with those aforementioned routes.

Out of the Cougars’ seven “explosive” passing plays – those being gains of 15 or more yards – I count four coming on crossers and one on a wheel to Max Borghi.

On WSU’s third series alone, Calvin Jackson Jr. gained 35 yards on two receptions over the middle. He sped laterally, then raced up the sideline for chunk yardage after the catch. Jackson was clearly the Cougars’ most productive target on the night, and those routes are his bread and butter.

WSU might try to go to those underneath throws early and often to get its quarterback in a rhythm.

To answer your question: Yes, I figure the Cougars will lean toward quick tosses, letting speedsters like Jackson, Travell Harris and Borghi work in space.

With the way the weekend went … everywhere, would a Big Sky or #FeartheFCS team also have beaten the Cougars? Meaning, it’s almost lucky they opened with (Group of Five) instead of FCS like Washington, Tulsa, UConn, UNLV, Colorado State and Vanderbilt.

- @Chris_P_Hammond

If we’re being real, probably.

I was raised in Big Sky country and grew up watching the likes of Eastern Washington and Montana most weekends. After graduating from Idaho, I covered the Vandals’ transition to the Sky and their first 2½ years back in their former conference – counting the excuse for a season that was spring 2021.

So, those are my credentials to speak on this.

Schools from the FCS or Big Sky shouldn’t be overlooked, and the top end of that level of play is only getting stronger by the year. In my opinion, ranked FCS teams – the Big Sky boasts five of them – are often just as talented, if not more so, than mid/low-tier FBS programs.

I’d wager that Montana would’ve outmuscled the Cougs just like it did Washington. Eastern Washington may very well have stunned its neighbors to the south, too – again. The powerhouse Dakota schools? That would have been ugly.

On paper, yeah, it looks worse for WSU to drop a game against an FCS opponent, rather than losing to a Mountain West foe.

But then again, I bet there are 15 or so FCS teams that would have spanked Utah State on Saturday.

And no, I don’t believe Portland State is among them, and I don’t think the Cougars are in trouble this weekend against the Vikings, who seem like a .500ish Big Sky team this year.

WSU went 3-0 against the Big Sky between 2017-19, routing Montana State, EWU and Northern Colorado.

In 2016, the Cougs were edged in a shootout by the Eagles. The year prior, Portland State’s best team in program history embarrassed WSU.

At this point, these Cougars cannot afford a letdown like that.

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