Don’t take your eyes off …
The list goes on. Washington State was middling in most aspects during a tense Week 1 loss to underdog Utah State last weekend. The Cougs are commending a consistent outing from a unit led by a freshman punter – Australian Nick Haberer, who hadn’t played American football before – but taking a look in the mirror on other fronts. Which is most important from your perspective? The play-calling? Jayden de Laura, the player at the center of the run-and-shoot? It might be the people protecting him and opening more lanes for Max Borghi, or how quickly the defense can bounce back from its late collapse vs. Utah State. WSU could use a cleanly executed offensive display against an FCS opponent to restore its confidence, and a little of its image, after sputtering at inopportune moments in its opener. The Cougars’ defense tired out late last week, but permitted just three points in the first half. Whether it maintains that level of play against a Vikings offense that has several real weapons will be something to watch. WSU was predicted by oddsmakers to breeze past Utah State by 17 points. The Cougars are big favorites again. For morale’s sake, a comfortable win feels necessary here.
When WSU has the ball …
He didn’t win the quarterback job ahead of the opener, but we’ll likely see de Laura take the first snap in Week 2. It’s possible Week 1 starter Jarrett Guarantano is not available, and coach Nick Rolovich said he feels more comfortable now letting de Laura take the driver’s seat after the sophomore from Hawaii showed poise and maturity when thrust into a relief role against Utah State. With a full week of game prep as the starter, de Laura might be expected to guide the offense more methodically and take fewer unnecessary risks on broken plays. De Laura scared Utah State with his legs (seven rushes for 42 yards) but was erratic and sometimes dangerous through the air, passing 12 of 22 for 155 yards. The Cougs’ offensive line wasn’t paving enough clear lanes for Borghi, Rolovich indicated, so the coach pulled back on the running game. Portland State conceded 268 yards on the ground against Hawaii last week. WSU’s line probably shouldn’t give up eight tackles for loss Saturday, like it did to the Aggies. Although the Vikings’ defensive numbers from their season opener aren’t great, their “flex” scheme can cause problems with its unique fronts, disguised pressure and roving linebacker/safety hybrid. “It’s the disrupting and confusion, and identification that can also bring some uncertainty offensively,” Rolovich said.
When Portland State has the ball …
The Big Sky has long been an offense-minded conference and Portland State fits the mold. Senior quarterback Davis Alexander has started 25 games over the past four years. The Vikings often give him free rein to sling it, and he is averaging about 14 yards per completion on his career. He’s been Portland State’s No. 2 option in the ground game for the past couple of years, too, and has piled up 1,095 rushing yards. WSU’s key on defense, according to edge rusher Willie Taylor III, is to prevent Alexander from slipping out of the pocket. That’s where the 6-foot, 195-pounder from Gig Harbor, Washington, can hurt the Cougs. He thrives on improvisation, as does his receiving corps, which features a couple of Big Sky standouts in lengthy Emmanuel Daigbe and slot speedster Beau Kelly. The Vikings talked up their receivers room during July’s Big Sky media day in Spokane. Alexander said, “It’s going to be top notch – it’s going to be up there in the conference,” and coach Bruce Barnum added, “We have three or four starter-type Big Sky guys.” Portland State tends to go high-tempo – not as “extreme” as Utah State, Rolovich said, but in that ballpark. The pace of the Aggies’ offense eventually got to the Cougs. The Vikings’ offense came alive last week after falling into a 28-point hole in the first quarter, outscoring the Rainbow Warriors 35-21 from the second quarter onward in the 49-35 loss. Meanwhile, WSU’s defense faltered down the stretch and gave up 15 points on two long Utah State drives in the final 6 minutes. The Cougs surrendered one field goal and had two takeaways in the first half. It’ll be interesting to see if WSU has adjusted its defensive rotations and how it handles another fast-paced opponent.
Barnum recorded his first win as Portland State’s head coach in his first game on Sept. 5, 2015, in Pullman. The Vikings answered a 10-point halftime deficit and took their first lead in the fourth quarter. With WSU driving, PSU cornerback Aaron Sibley intercepted backup Cougars quarterback Peyton Bender, but it appeared the ball might have touched the turf. The officials went to a video review, then one approached Barnum before alerting the crowd and said, “Coach, you just won the game,” Barnum remembered. Barnum turned to his young son, Cooper, to tell him the good news. “That was a pretty cool moment.” A photo of Barnum and Cooper – who’s now a pitcher for the Cougs’ baseball team – celebrating the 24-17 win together still hangs in the coach’s office. The Vikings had never beaten a Power Five opponent and haven’t since. They are 4-41 against FBS competition. PSU had its most successful season in program history in 2015, compiling a 9-3 record and qualifying for the FCS playoffs. They went 12-33 in the four seasons that followed and did not play in 2020 because of the coronavirus. WSU lost to another Big Sky school, Eastern Washington, in 2016. Since 2017, the Cougars are 3-0 against the Big Sky, with a 149-41 combined margin of victory.
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