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Examining Washington State’s statistical bright spots and unfavorable trends through three games

Washington State Cougars wide receiver Calvin Jackson Jr. (8) celebrates a first down during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, Sep 18, 2021, at Gesa Field in Pullman, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

A quarter of the way through the season, statistical trends are beginning to surface for Washington State’s football team.

Let’s sift through the numbers and examine the Cougars’ inside receivers, defensive front, conversion rates and ground game.

The slotbacks

Before the season began, we all expected veterans Travell Harris and Calvin Jackson Jr. to be the first two targets for whoever played quarterback at WSU.

As it turns out, they’re getting more looks than we might have guessed.

The Cougs’ stellar Floridian slot tandem has combined for 414 receiving yards. Harris and Jackson have hauled in 18 receptions apiece and scored five times – Harris is well ahead in that category with a Pac-12-best four touchdowns.

Compare those numbers to the rest of the Cougar pass-catchers.

WSU receivers have gained 703 yards. Jackson and Harris are responsible for nearly 60% of the yardage. They have 36 receptions and everyone else has 25 – that’s about 60% of the catches, too.

The only other Cougar receiver with a touchdown is Donovan Ollie, who muscled into the end zone on a slant pattern in the Cougars’ Week 1 loss to Utah State.

Cougar quarterbacks have attempted 101 passes this season. Forty-nine of them have been in the direction of either Harris or Jackson, the Pac-12’s most productive receiving duo this season (Arizona’s Stanley Berryhill III and Tayvian Cunningham have 17 more combined yards than Harris and Jackson, but three fewer touchdowns).

“I think we just improved our route running,” Harris said last week when asked about the inside receivers’ success this year. “Both of us can take the top off a defense. We can run short and medium routes. We just improved our route running and created separation.”

It’s worth mentioning that the two spent a fair portion of the second half on the sideline during the past two games. One was a blowout in WSU’s favor, the other the opposite.

Jackson was shifted to inside receiver in the preseason after standout slot man Renard Bell sustained an ACL injury that will sideline him for the year. Jackson is among the Cougs’ fastest players. He’s known for shedding defenders on bubble screens and underneath receptions and piling up yards after the catch.

Don’t be fooled by his smaller stature, either. Jackson stands under 6 feet tall, but his leaping ability has impressed. He took flight for a couple of big gainers in tight single coverage vs. Portland State.

Asked last month of his favorite route, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, product went with the fade pattern.

“I like to showcase my speed, and if it’s a 50-50 ball, I can showcase my ability to go up and get it,” he said.

Jackson is up to 262 yards. He’s 25 yards shy of his career high for yardage in a season – 287 in 2018, the grad student’s first year as a Coug.

Harris excels on inside designs and quick throws. The Tampa, Florida, native scurried in for both of his touchdowns vs. USC on such routes.

He has accumulated 152 yards. At this rate, the redshirt senior will surpass his best single-season yardage total – 536 in 2019. Harris has 1,337 yards and 12 touchdowns on his career.

Sophomore Lincoln Victor, a reserve inside receiver, spoke Tuesday about the leadership qualities of Jackson and Harris.

“We can learn from both of them, just being able to have one snap and clear,” he said. “Whether it’s a drop or they make a big play, you gotta keep pushing. Travell, he’s always talking about bringing the energy. CJ is a more kind of quiet guy, but he makes plays. … Just doing the right route, doing your job and flying around to the ball, I think that’s what we can learn from them.”

A steadily improving run stop

Something flipped in the Cougars’ rushing defense after an inadequate performance in Week 1.

WSU permitted 222 yards on 46 carries in its deflating loss to the Aggies of Utah State, who went for 4.8 yards a pop.

On the ground, the Cougars’ next two opponents went nowhere.

Portland State rushed for 8 yards in the first quarter and 41 in the second – all of those yards came via quarterback keepers.

Vikings tailbacks hardly managed a yard until the game was out of reach in the third quarter. PSU finished with 102 yards on 27 carries for an average of 3.8 yards per try.

Southern Cal’s Air Raid offense was off the mark in its first two games, so the Trojans leaned on the rush, and did so effectively. They were averaging 5.3 yards per carry before making the trip to Pullman.

It turned out to be a disastrous game for the Cougars, but their rushing defense can take some comfort in the fact that it was not to blame.

USC was foiled by the Cougs’ early-down pressure packages and posted just 48 yards on 25 carries for a meager average of 1.9 yards per tote.

WSU’s rushing defense ranks sixth in the Pac-12 at 124 yards per game. The Cougs are No. 5 in the conference with 18 tackles for loss, 14 of which came in their previous two contests.

“It’s gotten better and better,” edge coach A.J. Cooper said of WSU’s rushing defense. “There are things we need to continue to improve at, and obviously we’ve got a great test (ahead).”

The Cougs (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) meet Utah (1-2, 0-0) at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

The Utes log just over 5 yards per carry and traditionally feature a stalwart offensive line. They are a top-50 team in the FBS in rushing offense at about 190 yards per game.

“Utah does a great job running the football,” Cooper said. “They got a physical O-line. They got a great group of tight ends. Their running backs are big, physical kids. So, we got a big test this week, and that’s not just the defensive line. It’s the front seven, the corners. It’s going to be a group effort to make sure we limit their run game, limit the explosiveness, keep the ball in front of us and force them into more passing situations.”

Spearheading WSU in stopping the run are linebackers Jahad Woods (2.5 tackles for loss) and Justus Rogers (two), nickel Armani Marsh (two) and breakout true freshman edge Andrew Edson, who leads all Power Five freshmen with four tackles for loss.

“He doesn’t talk. He goes in and works,” defensive tackle Amir Mujahid said of Edson, a Snoqualmie, Washington, native. “I’m actually trying to learn some things from him and I’m an older guy myself. He goes in there and works, does what he’s told and he works even harder than most of the guys out here. So, kudos to him.”

The priority for the Cougs’ defensive front will be to boost its sack numbers. WSU sits in the Pac-12 basement in that category with three. But its pass-rushers have pressured opposing quarterbacks 14 times against just five for WSU’s opponents.

The Cougars are experimenting with a four-edge set on their defensive line for certain scenarios.

“We did it last year, and Willie (Taylor III) got hurt and some other injuries occurred and it kinda faded away,” Cooper said. “But we used it against Utah last year. Just trying to get the best athletes on the field.”

Third-down and red-zone conversion rates

Key factors in both of their losses, the Cougars are 11 of 34 (32.6%) on third downs and have scored eight touchdowns in 16 red-zone opportunities.

It’s difficult to tell whether WSU is just a snakebit third-down team or if the issue stems from playcalling. Either way, the Cougs’ troubles in moving the chains have compounded fans’ frustrations with WSU’s coaching.

The Cougs have had 36 possessions this season and faced 41 third downs. They have gone three-and-out 12 times. Yes, one third of WSU’s possessions have ended in three-and-outs.

On their average third-down play, the Cougars need 7 yards for a first. They’re recording about 3.1 yards per third-down snap. WSU has scored two touchdowns on third downs, taken four sacks and committed two penalties.

Six Cougar possessions have not featured a third-down play. Five ended in touchdowns and another a goal-line interception against Portland State.

Third-down woes played a direct role in WSU’s loss to Utah State and its second-half collapse against USC.

Two early drives in Week 1 stalled when the Cougars dialed up draw runs on third-and-10 and third-and-5. De Laura was pressured immediately, forcing incompletions on two other third downs, and he was sacked on a third-and-5 in the fourth quarter, which opened the door for Utah State’s winning series.

The Cougars went three-and-out three times in the decisive third quarter vs. USC. Two of backup quarterback Victor Gabalis’ completions to receivers running out routes ended up a couple of yards short of the first-down marker.

WSU potentially could have stretched its advantage vs. USC to 21 points in the second quarter, but the Cougs couldn’t break the plane from the 1-yard line for the second time this season.

A gutty fourth-down burst from Max Borghi set WSU up inches from USC’s end zone. On first-and-goal, Borghi was stalemated by a wall of Trojans. On second down, Jackson dropped an open touchdown pass. Quarterback Jayden de Laura then kept the ball twice on what appeared to be designed quarterback runs. He was stacked up at the line of scrimmage.

Coach Nick Rolovich isn’t questioning himself for rolling the dice.

“I really think we could have had a really good mindset (if we scored) that touchdown on the four downs down there,” Rolovich said Monday. “I don’t regret going for it. With a team (USC) that talented, if you can go up 14 – and if you look back, it could have been 21 – I think you really start casting doubt on their sideline.”

Two weeks earlier, the Cougars trotted out their infamous Cammon Cooper goal-line package and were stuffed on three straight predictable running plays out of a wishbone formation. They settled for a field goal and a 12-point lead early in the fourth quarter, then lost to Utah State by three.

Tailback usage

Fans have been clamoring to see more of Borghi/Deon McIntosh since last season ended.

Many feel as though the Cougars’ two standout running backs aren’t being used enough. Borghi and McIntosh have taken handoffs on 38% of WSU’s plays.

That figure is pretty consistent with Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense, which tends to favor the pass about 60% of the time.

WSU ranks eighth in the Pac-12 in rushing offense (135.7 yards per game) and yards per carry (4.6). The ground game has been at times either underused or ineffective despite pundits’ predictions that WSU would enjoy perhaps the best one-two punch in the conference at tailback.

Borghi has 217 yards and two scores on 37 attempts, while McIntosh is up to 86 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Wisconsin transfer Nakia Watson has only been put to work in garbage time. He has 16 yards on seven rushes.

The two combined for 10 of their 15 total carries in the first half of WSU’s Week 1 loss to Utah State.

In a rout of Portland State the following week, the Cougars loaded their running backs up with 25 carries – the most single-game tailback carries for WSU in three years.

During one scoring drive, the Cougs ran the ball on four consecutive plays. How many years has it been since WSU did that?

WSU started strongly on the ground Saturday against USC, running the ball with either Borghi or McIntosh 11 times over its first three possessions. The Cougars sprinted out to a 14-0 lead.

The two combined for seven more carries the rest of the day. Passes were called for Gabalis – who entered cold off the bench in the third quarter – on six of the Cougars’ first eight second-half plays.

WSU seemed to abandon its rushing attack well before the game got out of hand.

The Cougars have been unpredictable in terms of when and how often they will employ their running backs.

WSU’s O-line has conceded 12 tackles for loss on tailback carries (six in Week 1 alone).

“They improved from Game 1 to Game 2, for sure,” Rolovich said.

It’s uncertain whether de Laura will be available for the Utah game.

If he’s not, the Cougs will go with Gabalis, Cooper or grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano.

The Utes boast the No. 2 passing defense in the conference, allowing 135.3 yards per game. Their rushing defense ranks ninth in the league, surrendering 161.7 yards per outing.