John Blanchette: Even if it was USC, latest collapse only confirms Washington State’s current trajectory is off target
Sept. 18, 2021 Updated Sat., Sept. 18, 2021 at 9:18 p.m.
PULLMAN – If you had made the rounds of the post-game tailgates here Saturday, surely support could have been found for this strategy:
Asking USC if it could spare a cup of Mike Bohn.
It was the Trojan athletic director who on Monday made one of those bold, dramatic – and, OK, overdue – strokes that college educrats get paid the big money for by firing his football coach, Clay Helton, after a humiliating loss.
We know it had to have been for that single loss. Because it came only a month after Bohn assessed his football coach and program and proclaimed, “Our trajectory is strong.”
Well, it is now, thanks to the Washington State Cougars.
USC interim head coach Donte Williams watched Saturday as the Trojans picked up their fragile psyches after being pounded for six quarters and blew apart the Cougars – speaking of fragile – with 45 straight points.
And where have we seen this before?
Pick almost any week.
The Nick Rolovich era at WSU is all of seven games old, and in four of those the Cougars have turned the come-from-ahead swoon into high art.
It’s becoming more of a Rolo trademark than his hat collection and his no-vax tap dance.
This, however, broke considerable new ground.
Yes, the Trojans are the Trojans and the Cougs are the Cougs and the series is now 62-10, though half of those Wazzu wins have come in the last 18 games. So there’s at least a chance of drama every now and then, and Saturday suggested there might be more, especially when USC quarterback Kedon Slovis was steered into the injury tent three minutes into the game.
Within a minute of halftime, the Cougs had a 14-0 lead that should have been 21-0 or greater.
That it wasn’t may have been evidence enough that the Cougars were on their way to another disaster – in this case, their worst loss at home since 2013.
“We missed some opportunities,” Rolovich allowed, “to put some heavy pressure on them.”
Some? First-and-goal at the USC 1 and no points. A fumble recovery at the USC 36 and no points. The Trojans fourth-and-9 just 38 seconds before halftime and a touchdown – the Cougars trying to cover swift Gary Bryant Jr. with linebacker Justus Rogers.
Then came another Wazzu quarterback calamity.
Starter Jayden de Laura returned from the locker room wearing a knee brace. Jarrett Guarantano, injured in his Game 1 start, was apparently still unavailable, though fully suited for some reason. Rolovich opted to go with walk-on Victor Gabalis over Cammon Cooper – with de Laura returning briefly to brave out a couple of long heaves that went incomplete.
The Cougs managed minus two yards in the third quarter. USC scored four touchdowns.
That’s something more than a mere momentum shift.
“We’re a team that has a good initial punch but not really a chin,” said offensive lineman Abraham Lucas, whose assessments in the post-game were remarkable for both his dissection of the Cougars’ faults and his defense of the program.
“If you come out in a fight and you hit ’em a couple of times and it’s great and everything is rah-rah, and then you get hit and just fold, that’s the mark of a sad fighter. … There’s lots of reasons for that, but if we’re not excited to play, why are we out there in the first place?”
Good question. Except Rolovich seems disinclined to dig deeper.
“I wouldn’t question our mental toughness right now,” the coach insisted.
Of course, it would be during nadirs like this that Rolovich’s predecessor, Mike Leach, would compare his players to empty corpses or a junior college softball team – and, no, that sort of under-the-bus bowling is not missed.
But right now, the last thing Wazzu’s fan base needs is another excuse to stay home. Saturday’s game was the third in a row to draw fewer than 25,000 patrons. Lousy weather was a big contributor, and it’s hard to blame people who don’t want to mosh it up in these COVID times. Rolovich’s refusal to get vaccinated has been a substantial public relations turnoff, among other things. He has to own that.
But mostly, Cougar football is a poor product at the moment, and that few see hope after halftime is something he must own, too – just as USC’s lack of expectation fulfillment fell at Helton’s feet.
Lucas tried to throw a block on the blame, calling this moment in Cougars history “a change in culture – and that takes time.
“You’re dealing with two different coaches,” he said. “Leach was a dictator, and I loved and respected him for it because his word was the law. Rolo cares much more about us as individuals and players. I think the method Rolo is doing is perfect, but it’s also a little tougher. … I don’t know if I see too much of a difference in culture as it is a restarting of culture. Cultures don’t last forever.
“I don’t know how you can put it on one guy and say it’s his fault.”
Well, because the salary runs seven figures and the program risks becoming irrelevant.
And certainly, the trajectory is, uh, not strong.
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