PULLMAN – In the words of coach Nick Rolovich, Washington State needed to “get stable.”
The Cougars were coming off a deflating loss to a nonconference underdog in their season opener. The team wasn’t really consistent in any facet.
“We had to get over that hump,” running back Max Borghi said. “We know what we’re capable of.”
In Week 2, the Cougars did what was expected of them: tuned up and lifted the spirits around their program ahead of Pac-12 play.
WSU had a smooth, balanced outing on offense and its defense bottled up FCS visitor Portland State in a 44-24 confidence-boosting victory Saturday at a sunny Gesa Field.
The Cougars were four-touchdown favorites, and for the most part, they looked like it.
“For the team, it was good just to have a positive game, something to bounce back from,” said quarterback Jayden de Laura, who was at the center of an impressive offensive showing.
WSU got rolling with its up-tempo attack in the second quarter, and Portland State (0-2) could not disrupt the Cougs’ flow.
“When we’re clicking passing and running, it’s pretty much whatever we want to do,” de Laura said.
De Laura led three consecutive touchdown drives in the second quarter. WSU’s offense gained 199 yards on 16 plays – only two of which weren’t executed cleanly.
“They (the Vikings) couldn’t really set up or prepare for the next play,” de Laura said. “They were always scrambling around.”
Linebacker Justus Rogers recorded an interception 30 seconds before halftime and WSU extended its lead to 30-10 at the break with a field goal at the buzzer, then coasted from there. The Cougars’ advantage ballooned to as much as 27 points early in the fourth quarter. Portland State’s two second-half touchdowns came against WSU’s deep reserves.
WSU established its run game on early downs and de Laura likely cemented himself as the starting quarterback going forward, completing 21 of 29 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns.
He also shrugged off a defender for a 21-yard scramble, and early in the second, shimmied past a tackler and laid out for a touchdown on a 10-yard keeper.
“Jayden is a great leader,” receiver Travell Harris said. “He’s very poised, understands the game.”
His only mistake was an errant pass into traffic when the Cougars were in the red zone midway through the first quarter. He was intercepted, but WSU scored six touchdowns in eight red-zone trips otherwise and de Laura looked in rhythm and confident, spreading the ball to seven different pass-catchers. De Laura was often bold with his downfield passes, but fit well-placed lobs in between closing defenders for big gains.
He was dialed in when stretching the field with throws toward slotbacks Harris and Calvin Jackson Jr., who combined for 157 yards and three touchdowns on nine receptions.
“He has a way of keeping the defense on their toes,” Rolovich said of de Laura.
Jackson had a high-point touchdown grab on WSU’s first drive, which was nearly flawless, and Harris caught a 19-yard scoring pass that was lofted between two defenders with about a minute remaining until intermission.
Harris was especially dangerous in the return game, too, logging 108 yards on four returns.
“He’s such a dynamic player and he’s such a dynamic personality,” Rolovich said of Harris.
WSU’s passing-game success was opened up by its rushing game, which was underutilized last week.
Borghi and Deon McIntosh split the touches and averaged a combined 5.86 yards per carry on 21 attempts, and each scored twice on the ground while totaling 123 yards. Both racked up yards after first contact but in several instances had wide gaps in the line to fly through.
“The run game only works when the passing game’s working, and we were making plays all over the field,” Borghi said.
WSU compiled 18 “explosive” plays on the day – meaning runs that gained over 10 yards and passing plays of 15-plus yards.
Of the Cougars’ 65 plays, just six went for negative yardage. WSU had accumulated 325 of its 462 total yards by the half. In last week’s loss to Utah State, the Cougars managed 360 yards all game.
“We all had a chip on our shoulders,” Borghi said. “Not that we didn’t last week, but we left too many plays on the field last week.”
Not counting a garbage-time drive that saw reserve quarterback Victor Gabalis go three-and-out, WSU’s offense only had three possessions that were ineffective. The rest of the Cougars’ drive featured chunk gains and a general flow that had been absent last week.
“We executed more,” Borghi said. “It showed offensively, defensively and on special teams. Defense had a couple of takeaways, which was huge for us. And we executed more in the red zone, which is huge for us.”
The Cougs’ first-string defense, which was awfully thin in the secondary, conceded just one touchdown drive all game. Talented senior Vikings quarterback Davis Alexander challenged WSU with his feet and found a few holes in its coverage to lock it up at 7-all early in the second.
But WSU’s front put adequate pressure on Alexander for the majority of the afternoon, recording five tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries, and held Portland State’s runners to 102 yards on 27 carries, an average of 3.8 yards per try. Alexander finished 28 of 50 (56%) for 318 yards, two touchdowns and one pick. The Vikings went 4 of 14 on third downs.
“Just able to break through,” linebacker Jahad Woods said. “We got a lot of playmakers up front … and they got after it.
“He (Alexander) is a really good player. He’s like a Johnny Manziel. We knew his style of play is different than what we’d seen before. It was difficult to contain to be honest, but we came out with the win.”
WSU’s Halid Djibril forced a first-quarter fumble, which edge rusher Andrew Edson recovered – the true freshman’s second fumble recovery in as many weeks. The Vikings went three-and-out twice in a row afterward as the Cougs’ offense settled in.
“We felt the pressure going in,” Woods said. “We knew we needed to win this game. It didn’t matter who it was.”
In the lead-up to the Portland State game, the prevailing public sentiment was that the Cougars needed a comfortable win to supply the program positive energy – something it has been short on in recent weeks.
WSU welcomes No. 14 USC to Pullman on Saturday, so it also was necessary for the Cougs to get themselves in the right headspace.
“We’ll enjoy this win. We obviously know USC is coming next week,” Rolovich said. “Not that Portland State wasn’t a challenge, because this was. Emotionally, we had to get ourselves stable and go out and play well, and finish this game.
“We know USC is very talented. We know the challenge is going to be there.”
WSU entered the game without nickels Armani Marsh and Armauni Archie, both of whom wore sweats on the sideline. Safety Daniel Isom, who was injured early last weekend, returned and switched over to safety.
The Cougars suffered what might be a big blow when star cornerback Jaylen Watson took an awkward fall in the third quarter.
He was seen on the sideline with his left arm in a sling.
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