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Two-minute drill: Keys to victory for Washington State against Utah

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

Don’t take your eyes off …

All week, Washington State coaches and players have underlined “finishing” as key. In seven games under coach Nick Rolovich, the Cougars have largely been a lousy second-half team. Check the numbers: WSU has been outscored 164-62 in third and fourth quarters since Rolovich took over. The Cougs have held double-digit second-half leads in four of their losses over the past two years. “This is a trend,” Rolovich admitted. “We need to adjust what we’re doing.” Last year, Utah outscored WSU 38-0 in the second half to win 45-28. Last weekend, Southern Cal pounded the Cougs after the break, rolling up 38 unanswered points in a 45-14 rout. On second thought, perhaps WSU should be more worried about how it starts when it meets the Utes on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Considering the Cougars are coming off a soul-sapping loss in which their spark-plug quarterback suffered an injury, a flat first quarter feels like a distinct possibility. The same might be said for a Utes team that dropped back-to-back emotional games in the past two weeks. BYU defeated Utah for the first time in 12 years, and the Utes were then downed in triple overtime by San Diego State.

When WSU has the ball …

Will spirited sophomore quarterback Jayden de Laura return from a leg injury? If not, who do the Cougars go with? Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano, WSU’s Week 1 starter, seems the obvious choice. But we’ve seen four signal-callers take the field for WSU this season, so who knows. Whether de Laura plays could be a game-time decision, Rolovich indicated. Guarantano and junior Cammon Cooper have been taking the first-team practice reps throughout the week. WSU’s offense has been mostly ineffective without de Laura, and that’s putting it lightly. After de Laura’s injury, the Cougars’ offense went stagnant vs. USC in the second half and absorbed a blowout loss. Regardless of who gets the nod at QB, the Cougars need to become less one-dimensional and find a way to include more of their playmakers in the passing game. Slotbacks Travell Harris and Calvin Jackson Jr. have accounted for 60% of the team’s receiving and all but one touchdown. “We need to get all four more involved,” Rolovich said. “We need the outside guys to be a little bit more productive, and I’m not throwing them under the bus – that’s us being aware of that.” Starting outside receivers De’Zhaun Stribling, a true freshman, and sophomore Donovan Ollie have combined for just 126 yards on 12 grabs. Star running back Max Borghi (three receptions, 51 yards) has also been underused in the passing game. He was expected to be among the nation’s top pass-catching backs this year. WSU’s veteran offensive line, which has underperformed so far this season, will be met with a considerable challenge in a Utah team that typically hangs its hat on its defense – specifically, its defensive front, which is led this year by a preseason All-American in linebacker Devin Lloyd. But the Utes have struggled to contain their opponents’ running backs. They rank ninth in the Pac-12 in that category, conceding 161.7 ground yards per game. Opposing defenses tend to dial up unique looks in combating Rolovich’s distinctive run-and-shoot offense, and that can present a problem for a WSU O-line that has had trouble picking up pressure packages. “I feel we get different stuff a lot of times than we necessarily prepare for – what they’ve shown earlier (on film),” Rolovich said. “That’s just the way it is. That’s how it’s been. So, (we emphasize) being great with adjustments and identifying what it is.”

When Utah has the ball …

Longtime Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said his team’s “primary issue right now” is its lack of an offensive identity. Utah traditionally fields a strong rushing outfit, but this squad has been middling on that end. Meanwhile, the Cougs’ run defense has steadily improved. “We haven’t been as physical running the football as we anticipated we were going to be,” Whittingham said. “We’re not throwing the football for as much production as we need to.” Charlie Brewer, the Utes’ starter at quarterback in their first three games, quit the program earlier this week. Texas transfer Cameron Rising, a more mobile signal-caller, replaced the benched Brewer in the second half and led Utah to a near-comeback last weekend against San Diego State. The Utes trailed by 14 in the fourth quarter before falling in triple overtime. Rising completed 19 of 32 passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns, adding 46 rushing yards on five attempts. Rising has two tall, well-built tight ends to throw to and an All-Pac-12 speedster in mainstay Britain Covey. The pressure will presumably be on WSU’s defense, considering its offense hasn’t established an identity either.

Did you know?

Fans weren’t permitted at games during the Pac-12’s 2020 season and the Cougars played their first three contests this year at home in front of sparsely populated crowds of around 30,000. Saturday’s game will feature the largest attendance the Cougars have seen under Rolovich. Aside from the pandemic season, Utah has sold out Rice-Eccles Stadium in 65 consecutive games, dating to 2010. The Utes expect a full gathering of over 51,000 for their homecoming with WSU. A record crowd of 51,511 watched Utah’s season opener this year vs. Weber State. The Utes are 101-36 at Rice-Eccles Stadium and have won 14 of their past 15 home games.