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Washington State rewind: Encouraging signs fade quickly in Cougars’ collapse vs. USC

USC Trojans wide receiver Drake London (15) leans into the end zone for a fo runs the ball against Washington State Cougars linebacker Travion Brown (82) during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, Sep 18, 2021, at Gesa Field in Pullman, Wash. USC won the game 45-14.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – The optimism lasted for about 30 minutes of game time.

Washington State was dismantling Southern Cal. Cougar fans don’t often get the chance to say that.

The Trojans’ coach was fired earlier in the week, and their experienced quarterback went down with an injury on their first drive. They were playing like a team lacking leadership, and WSU cashed in early.

Then crashed.

The sparsely populated crowd at a drizzly Gesa Field watched helplessly Saturday as the Cougars blew a double-digit lead for the fourth time under coach Nick Rolovich, surrendering 45 unanswered points in this one.

A variety of problems cropped up about midway through the Cougs’ 45-14 downer against USC.

WSU lost its spark with the loss of its quarterback, and lost the ball on the third-quarter kickoff. Its defense got fatigued, and was carved up by a first-timer at quarterback. Its embattled boss was put in an even tighter spot than before.

It doesn’t get much easier Saturday, when WSU meets Utah in Salt Lake City.

“This was a team loss,” tackle Abraham Lucas said. “When bad things happen, how do you respond?”

Will they rebound or dig a deeper hole vs. the Utes? Before we look ahead, let’s recap.

QB uneasiness resurfacing at WSU

It finally felt like the Cougars’ uncertainty concerning their quarterback position was a thing of the past.

Not so fast.

Sophomore Jayden de Laura had won back the job with a solid relief performance in Week 1. He shined against Portland State, and had a fine first half vs. Southern Cal, exuding confidence in his adjustments at the line of scrimmage and dissecting the Trojan secondary with crisp midrange passing.

De Laura’s first three series accounted for 192 of the Cougs’ 279 total yards. Slotbacks Calvin Jackson Jr. and Travell Harris were largely unguardable – they combined for 143 yards on 15 grabs, with Harris scoring twice.

The Cougars were a dropped touchdown pass away from potentially leading USC 21-0 late in the second quarter. A turnover on downs at the Trojans’ goal line allowed the visitors to snip their deficit to 14-7 at the break.

Inexplicably, de Laura emerged from the locker room after halftime with a limp and a brace on his left leg. He hadn’t shown signs of discomfort before then.

Grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano, who started in Week 1 vs. Utah State before suffering an injury, was in full uniform. Instead, only junior Cammon Cooper and sophomore walk-on Victor Gabalis began warming up.

You could almost sense it. The momentum was about to shift drastically.

The general assumption was that Guarantano or Cooper would be the first two in line to take over for de Laura. Apparently, Guarantano wasn’t available.

In a tight game, Rolovich sent out Gabalis, much to the surprise of the onlookers at Gesa Field.

Perhaps the Cougs needed the spark that only de Laura has provided so far this season. Maybe the moment was too big for Gabalis.

In any case, WSU’s offense was without every bit of its prior moxie when the third quarter started, setting the stage for the Trojans’ runaway victory.

“I don’t think we were conservative, we were just ineffective,” Rolovich said. “I gotta see the film, but I’m not sure it all falls on Victor’s shoulders either.”

The Cougars went three-and-out on consecutive possessions and USC went ahead by a score. Not long after, an interception by Armani Marsh near WSU’s goal line was squandered when Gabalis took a blindside sack in the end zone. He fumbled, and the Trojans recovered to extend their edge to 28-14.

De Laura signaled to Rolovich that he felt ready to reenter. He tried to revive WSU’s offense immediately with a deep ball, but was intercepted.

De Laura seemed out of sorts on the ensuing drive. He was off-target on two incompletions, then Gabalis subbed back in for a third-and-long play that went nowhere.

“Jayden started feeling a little better on the sideline, wanted to go back in and couldn’t do it completely,” Rolovich said. “He didn’t feel as confident as you should be as a quarterback.”

The critical third quarter ended – the Cougars didn’t gain a yard in the period, and USC had put it away with four touchdowns.

Gabalis passed 6 of 10 for 19 yards and was sacked twice.

Cooper led a garbage-time possession that went 55 yards before a last-ditch heave to the end zone was picked off. If you don’t count that final series, the Cougars leaned on a shaky pass game and gained 32 yards in the second half.

Rolovich didn’t provide an update on de Laura’s status, but it’s at least a good sign that he played after halftime. The quarterback’s health will be a primary topic in the lead-up to WSU’s matchup with defense-minded Utah.

Rolovich said Gabalis and Cooper are neck and neck in the competition for the second- or third-string role.

“We’ll see how everyone’s healthy and who we’ll go with against Utah,” he said.

The Cougs mostly abandoned their running game partway through the third when the game started “getting out of hand,” Rolovich said.

Max Borghi had 72 yards on 13 carries, but most of that production came early, with de Laura running the show and making USC account for his own running capabilities. WSU tallied 65 of its 99 rushing yards in the first three series.

WSU passing defense struggles against rookie

The Cougs’ lifeless offense betrayed its defense in the second half, totaling only 12 yards over five possessions that averaged out to around a minute apiece.

Two of those series lasted 30 seconds combined.

WSU’s defenders were clearly gassed, and Rolovich said as much during his postgame media session.

“They were just on the field way too many plays,” he acknowledged.

USC tallied 24 of its 38 second-half points in that stretch to all but shut the door on a game that began so auspiciously for WSU, yet ended in embarrassment.

It’s understandable that WSU’s remarkably unproductive offensive showing in the second half has received the bulk of criticism. But the defense faltered, too.

Overall, the Cougars had trouble containing true freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart, who was making his collegiate debut after veteran Kedon Slovis went down with an injury on the Trojans’ opening series.

On his first drive, Dart threw errantly into heavy traffic and was intercepted by Daniel Isom. The rookie couldn’t kickstart his offense on the following possession, and his team fell into a 14-0 hole. He then coughed the ball up on a QB keeper.

It appeared the youthful Dart had run into a wall in the form of a Coug defense laden with seasoned upperclassmen.

“At the start, just with how my emotions were and being in an environment like that for the first time, things were going a little fast for me,” said Dart, a four-star recruit and the 2020 Gatorade National Player of the Year at Corner Canyon High in Utah. “I think that kind of showed with some of the mistakes I made.”

Suddenly, a first-time college QB who’d been thrust into action on the road was picking WSU apart with an array of throws, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Trojanland for the past two weeks.

Dart completed six passes of 30-plus yards against a Cougar defense that too often stranded its DBs on islands.

USC had one passing play of 30 or more yards in a closer-than-expected win vs. San Jose State in Week 1. The Trojans, again, had one 30-plus-yard play through the air in a blowout loss to Stanford last weekend. They settled for checkdown-type throws or unimaginative out-routes that typically churned out gains of 3-6 yards.

USC entered this game with just seven passing plays of 15-plus yards, and more than doubled that number with eight on Saturday alone.

Besides the two early drives that ended in turnovers, Dart settled in to pass 28 of 41 (68.3%) for 369 yards and four touchdowns against one pick. Despite the Trojans’ uninspired offensive start to the year – and the drizzly weather in Pullman – Dart set the Southern Cal record for most passing yards in a debut.

Dart appeared to sustain a lower-body injury early on.

“It looked like he got banged up a little bit, but he toughed it out and made some big-time throws,” Rolovich said. “He’s a helluva player. That Drake London, he’s a tremendous player.”

Dart connected with 10 different targets and even picked on standout WSU defensive backs Jaylen Watson and Derrick Langford Jr., neither of whom had a chance one-on-one with NFL-bound Trojan pass-catcher London (13 receptions, 170 yards, two touchdowns).

“In the second half, we (the defense) didn’t have as much momentum going our way,” said nickel Armani Marsh, who returned from an injury that sidelined him last week and was a bright spot with an interception and forced fumble.

The Cougs had major coverage lapses on two of Dart’s scoring strikes. With under a minute remaining in the second quarter, WSU safety George Hicks III misread a fourth-and-9 Trojan passing play and left middle linebacker Justus Rogers alone to deal with speedy USC receiver Gary Bryant Jr.

Bryant roasted Rogers for a 38-yard touchdown, which was the first of several midgame turning points that fed into the Cougars’ collapse.

Late in the third, with the visitors firmly in control and threatening to score again, another coverage mix-up on WSU’s part permitted USC to swell its lead to 21 points.

Somehow, backup middle linebacker Travion Brown was tasked with single coverage against the 6-foot-5 London. Dart let it fly over the middle, and Isom attempted to scurry over to offset the mismatch, but was too late. London leapt above Brown and the Trojans went up 35-14.

Rolovich said the Cougars were fielding zone coverages those two plays and the linebackers just happened to be left alone in the middle to guard receivers that lined up inside.

A portion of Dart’s success certainly has to do with his improved protection, which might stem somewhat from the Cougars being fatigued in the third quarter.

In the first half, Dart absorbed a couple of big hits – a sack, three tackles for loss and three pressures.

He sat cleanly in the pocket after intermission. Dart was pressured once, and wrapped up behind the line once.

The Cougs’ rushing defense was easily the team’s most effective trait. WSU held USC to under 2 yards per carry and 48 yards in all. Trojan tailbacks logged only 16 rushes.

“Did a nice job stopping the run and did a nice job giving us opportunities in the first half, but (it doesn’t matter) if you can’t get a first down in the third quarter,” Rolovich said.

True freshman edge-rusher Andrew Edson, a native of Snoqualmie, was one of few Cougar standouts Saturday. He totaled six tackles, a sack and three stops for loss. Edson recovered fumbles in each of WSU’s first two games and logged a sack last weekend vs. Portland State.