SALT LAKE CITY – Midway through Washington State’s 2020 game against Utah, the Cougars’ odds of winning were around 95%, according to ESPN.
But in what’s become a recent trend for the Cougars, the wheels fell off after an auspicious start. The host Utes stormed back from a 21-point halftime deficit and outscored the Cougs by 38 in the final two quarters to prevail 45-28.
WSU coach Nick Rolovich hasn’t let his team forget about ESPN’s forecast.
“That was something we talked about all offseason,” he said.
“Finishing, taking that last whatever percentage it was and finishing your reps, finishing your offseason workouts, your running. That was one of the focuses in the offseason. It’s good to get a chance to get back down there and kind of flush that from the memory banks.”
The Cougars, who suffered a similar second-half collapse last weekend, return to Salt Lake City seeking redemption. Kickoff is slated for 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
WSU’s meltdown here a year ago was part of a pattern that surfaced again last Saturday in Pullman. Southern Cal erased a 14-0 Cougars advantage and tallied 45 unanswered points in the 45-14 decision. WSU has squandered double-digit leads in four losses over the past two years.
After the game, WSU tackle Abraham Lucas likened the team to a cage fighter who “has a good initial punch,” but poor stamina and a fragile chin that can’t withstand blows down the wire.
“Like what Abe said: We just gotta make sure that when we get hit in the mouth, we can start firing back again,” WSU edge Brennan Jackson said.
It’s been a week of reflection for Rolovich’s team. The second-year boss admitted that his team needs to “deal with adversity a little bit better,” and he shouldered the blame.
“It’s my job to get our energy turned the right way,” he said.
“I think everyone had to look at themselves after that (USC) game.”
The Cougs (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) will be faced Saturday with a hostile environment at a sold-out Rice-Eccles Stadium, and they might be without starting quarterback Jayden de Laura, who Rolovich said earlier this week will be questionable vs. the Utes after injuring his left leg against USC.
The Cougars were clearly demoralized by de Laura’s absence.
“There’s always bad things that happen in a game,” Rolovich said. “You just gotta deal with them.”
If de Laura can’t go, WSU will trot out either grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano or junior Cammon Cooper.
The Utes (1-2, 0-0) have been dealing with trials of their own over the past week.
They were edged 33-31 in triple overtime by San Diego State last Saturday, which prompted a players-only meeting – of course, those are generally conducted when times are tough.
“It appeared to be very productive,” longtime Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “They got some things hashed out.”
Utah received some bad news Monday when it was revealed that captain Viane Moala, a defensive tackle, would miss the season with an injury. Starting quarterback Charlie Brewer then abruptly quit the team Wednesday.
But the Utes have some reason to feel encouraged. First, they may have found a new leader to rally around in sophomore quarterback Cameron Rising, who entered in relief and nearly guided a come-from-behind win against the Aztecs.
And none of their preseason aspirations has faded.
“We’re 0-0 in Pac-12 play. That’s the mentality right now,” Whittingham said. “We got a fresh start.”
In last year’s matchup, Utah leaned on its traditionally stout ground game and its defensive front bullied WSU in the second half. The Utes’ offense this season has been inconsistent on both fronts while its defense excels in the passing game but has had an unusually sluggish start in stopping the run.
“Their identity is what coach Whittingham wants: There’s a physical defense, run the ball,” Rolovich said. “But see, then they come with these timely explosive plays. … They’re not just gonna be 3 yards and a cloud of dust.”
WSU is a two-touchdown underdog. The Cougars aren’t known as a resilient bunch, but they’ll have an opportunity to shift that narrative somewhat.
Sustaining steady play for a full game would be a start.
“One of the things we did talk about earlier this year is: It really doesn’t matter who starts the fight,” Rolovich said. “It all matters who finishes the fight, and we need to be better at finishing the fight.”
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