PULLMAN – In his first meeting with Pac-12 foe USC, Jayden de Laura didn’t feel like himself.
Ahead of last season’s matchup with the Trojans, the Washington State quarterback missed more than a week of practice as he recovered from a case of COVID-19.
“COVID kind of hit me hard, so I wasn’t really all there mentally,” the sophomore said Wednesday at Gesa Field after practice.
De Laura was picked off on consecutive passes in the first quarter of the Dec. 6 contest at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum – the Cougs’ first game in 22 days because of coronavirus-spurred cancellations.
The Trojans capitalized with quick touchdowns.
USC took advantage of WSU’s lethargic offense and built a 35-point lead in the second period, then eased up after the half in a 38-13 rout that could have been worse.
“It was just mental mistakes during the game, stuff I know this year now,” de Laura said. “The preparation is way easier this year.”
De Laura won’t be rusty in Round 2.
This time, he’s coming off maybe his finest outing in crimson and gray.
WSU (1-1) hosts USC (1-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
“Tough first quarter. Entering the game, mentally, I’m not sure we were believing we could compete,” coach Nick Rolovich said of last year’s game against the Trojans. “I know Jayden had back-to-back throws that were intercepted. I’ve done that in my career. … (De Laura has) come back and become an improved player, an improved leader.”
The versatile signal-caller from Hawaii lit up FCS visitor Portland State last weekend, completing 72% of his passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns. He added a couple of distinctive plays with his feet in the 44-24 win.
Pro Football Focus gave de Laura’s performance a 92.4 grade – the third highest among all FBS quarterbacks in Week 2.
Rolovich said de Laura was even better than the stat book or film might suggest.
“It was his presence. It was how dialed-in he was,” Rolovich said. “Those types of things, I guess you could see a little bit off the film, but it was more of a feeling.”
De Laura “felt more confident” coming into the game with a full week of preparation as WSU’s starter under his belt.
“We were just all on the same page, starting from Monday’s practice,” he said. “Me and the receivers and the offensive line, our communication is really good right now.”
Grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano, who went down with an injury early in the Cougs’ Week 1 loss to Utah State, had won the preseason QB competition. But de Laura displayed poise off the bench, mature decision-making and explosive athleticism.
At this rate, it seems de Laura will establish himself as WSU’s No. 1 arm going forward. Rolovich isn’t quite ready to provide a confirmation on that, though.
So far, de Laura is 33 of 51 (64.7%) for 458 yards and four touchdowns against one interception. He has completed passes to eight receivers.
De Laura, who ranks 18th in the Power Five in passing efficiency, stretches the field with sometimes fearless throws and shows zip on efficient tosses in WSU’s short game.
Not counting lost yardage from sacks, the 6-foot, 190-pounder has gained 86 yards and scored once on 14 carries.
It’s clear de Laura’s game has developed over the past year, yet it’s difficult to gauge the full extent of his progress.
WSU’s first two opponents weren’t considered formidable. The Cougars’ next game, however, should produce a more solid evaluation of de Laura’s growth.
USC comes to Pullman on the heels of an unpleasant week for the program. Trojans coach Clay Helton was fired Monday – two days after USC sustained a blowout loss at home to a Stanford team that had been dominated by Kansas State the week prior.
Don’t be fooled by all that. The Trojans haven’t lost their talent, coordinators or position coaches. And their interim coach, Donte Williams, is defense-minded – with an emphasis on the secondary.
“I don’t see a wholesale change coming,” Rolovich said. “I think they’ll do what they do defensively with (DC Todd Orlando) and on offense with (OC Graham Harrell). That’s who they are now.”
Although the Trojans are off to a slower start this year, their defense features the bulk of starters from the team that dismantled WSU’s offense nine months ago. USC finished the season 5-1 and second in the Pac-12, and enjoyed a top-three defense in the conference.
De Laura was sacked three times in the first half, and committed three giveaways. He went 18 of 29 for 134 yards.
“I can’t afford to take sacks and I can’t turn the ball over,” he said of keys to the rematch. “I just gotta take care of the ball and march downfield, and try to score every time we get the ball.”
De Laura, being the centerpiece of the offense, absorbed much of the blame for the previous game’s outcome, though there were issues elsewhere. USC quarterback Kedon Slovis completed 18 straight passes at one point and his favorite receiver, Amon-Ra St. Brown, totaled four first-quarter touchdown grabs.
“It wasn’t all on Jayden last year,” said Rolovich, whose team was without six key players, including standout cornerback Jaylen Watson – a former Trojans signee. “(USC) executed well on all three sides that first quarter. We settled in when the game was out of hand most likely.
“The defense was put in a bunch of bad spots last year in that game, but they still took the field with pride and went out and made some plays. I think if you erase that first quarter, it’s maybe a different game. But it’s not. We had to take our medicine. We gotta be prepared for a great team coming in here.”
De Laura recognizes “there is kind of something different” about the approaching challenge. It’s a bigger test against a better opponent, one which overwhelmed WSU’s offense a little under a year ago.
Then again, de Laura noted that the Cougars won’t put any extra emphasis on this game because of their past matchup with USC. The circumstances have changed, especially for WSU’s improved quarterback position.
Rolovich, de Laura on WSU’s up-tempo offense
WSU’s second-year coach sped up his run-and-shoot early in the second quarter of the Cougs’ win over Portland State. The offense reduced its presnap huddles and settled into its best groove of the season, scoring 21 points over three balanced series that spanned about four minutes combined.
Rolovich said the Cougars will “have some of that” up-tempo offense vs. USC.
“How much is kind of yet to be seen,” he said. “It’s really nice to have that ability. I think our guys operated well and it provided a spark. That’s something we’ll keep in our pocket for at least the near future and probably the long-term future, too.”
Rolovich admitted that he should have tested the approach earlier in his tenure at WSU.
“We never used it enough, and that’s on me,” he said. “Glad I finally kicked myself to do it. It got us going.”
De Laura was particularly sharp in the simplified system. His confidence seemed to bloom as the run and passing game worked in harmony.
“I feel like I’m more comfortable. Especially when we’re rolling after a big play, I’m always saying, ‘Coach, let’s go, let’s get back on the line. Let’s go get these guys,’ ” de Laura said.
Jayden de Laura
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