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Washington State rewind: Cougars’ solid day on defense overshadowed by offensive troubles

Utah quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson, center, is tackled by a host of Washington State defenders in the first half of a Pac-12 game Sept. 25 in Salt Lake City.  (Associated Press)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

SALT LAKE CITY – For a second consecutive week, Washington State’s run-and-shoot offense is dominating headlines.

Not for good reasons, though.

An inability to move the chains after halftime bit WSU in another dud, this one a 24-13 loss to Utah on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The Cougs dropped to 1-3 overall and 0-2 in Pac-12 play to start a season that has been generally defined by faults in second-year coach Nick Rolovich’s system. WSU, which is commonly regarded as an offense-oriented program, could be developing an identity as a defense-minded team.

Idle offense overshadows defensive gem

WSU’s offensive players owe the Cougar defenders an apology.

One side of the ball for WSU outperformed the other significantly in Salt Lake City.

The Cougs’ defense forced five of Utah’s seven fumbles and recovered three of them, all in the second half. The Utes’ offense was stagnant for long stretches in Saturday’s game, but WSU’s own futility on that end kept the door open.

Utah punted on its first three possessions, and was held to field-goal tries twice in the second half despite reaching WSU’s 10-yard line.

The Cougars’ defense permitted just 96 Utah yards and five first downs in the first half. The Cougars’ offense produced only 106 yards and six first downs in the second half.

One could make an argument that WSU’s defenders ran out of gas because its offense came up empty over its final six possessions, which featured two interceptions, three punts, a turnover on downs and about 20 total yards gained.

It looked like winning football from WSU’s defense, which permitted a season-low 350 yards and conceded a season-best seven plays of more than 10 yards.

“Our defense played phenomenal,” tackle Abraham Lucas said. “I thought they did a really, really good job, and it’s up to us on offense to capitalize and have more success.

“The defense played very, very well. And the offense, we have some things to clean up.”

WSU’s defenders had a knack for timely plays.

Nickel Armani Marsh popped Utah’s Chris Curry at the Cougar 1-yard line early in the fourth, knocking the ball free to preserve WSU’s 13-10 lead. A few snaps before, the Utes had their longest play of the game, a 59-yard burst from T.J. Pledger, but the Cougs proved resilient.

Two drives earlier, linebacker Travion Brown deftly punched the ball out of Utah quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson’s grip at the Cougars 8-yard line, and Cougs cornerback Jaylen Watson recovered.

WSU quarterback Jarrett Guarantano’s interception on a screen pass at his team’s 19-yard line two plays prior didn’t end up costing the Cougars.

An official accidentally left his microphone on after Brown’s forced fumble, and could be heard telling a fellow ref what many at Rice-Eccles Stadium were probably already thinking: “So, the best offense is a good defense.”

The visitors’ brightest offensive moment of the afternoon came by virtue of a defensive highlight.

Edge Ron Stone Jr. – who impressed throughout the contest – dashed into the backfield on the Utes’ first play of the third quarter, blowing up a rushing play with a bell-ringer on Micah Bernard, who coughed it up at the Utah 21.

On a short field, the Cougars scored their only touchdown of the game.

Midway through the third quarter, Coug safety Daniel Isom ripped the ball away from Utah tight end Cole Fotheringham. WSU recovered, but the refs said Fotheringham’s knee was down. Although a replay seemed to confirm that it wasn’t, the call stood.

“We had a lot of strip attempts during that game, and the ball came out a good amount of times,” Stone said. “When you keep practicing like that, it’s not too surprising when you see certain results.”

WSU’s defense ranks second in the Pac-12 with 10 takeaways, and it’s in the upper half of the league with 23 tackles for loss. It has had trouble getting to opposing quarterbacks, however, and is 11th in the Pac-12 with just four sacks.

The Cougars are 10th in the conference in total defense at 414.3 yards per game, yet how much higher might the unit rank if its offense wasn’t consistently creating adversity?

WSU sits 10th in the Pac-12 in both total and scoring offense at 354.8 yards and 23.5 points. Its red-zone touchdown margin (8 of 19) is 11th in the conference. The Cougars, supposedly an offense-minded outfit, rank 104th in the country in yards per play at 5.35, and that number dips by about almost a yard in second halves alone. Their offensive line has struggled, allowing 32 tackles for loss.

The Cougs have scored 10 points in the fourth quarter all year. They have one touchdown over the past six quarters.

On Saturday, WSU dominated Utah throughout the first half in every statistical column, yet trailed 7-6 at the break. Four Cougar drives entered the Utes’ 35-yard line. They ended with a turnover on downs, an interception and two field goals.

WSU was stopped on fourth-and-1 on its first series when it tried to get tricky and had 180-pound slot receiver Lincoln Victor motion under center and take a quick snap for a sneak. With eight seconds until halftime and WSU at Utah’s 10, the Cougars ran the ball with Deon McIntosh for 6 yards, then settled for a field goal.

“There were a lot more missed opportunities on offense today than there were on defense,” Lucas said.

In Week 1 against Utah State, the Cougar offense squandered two scoring opportunities after the defense forced a pair of turnovers. WSU’s offense didn’t score a point off of three first-half takeaways vs. USC last weekend, and didn’t gain a yard in the third quarter – no doubt tiring out its defense.

Against Utah, the Cougars were better to some degree.

“You have to battle if you’re gonna have a chance to win, and we did have a chance to win,” Lucas said. “You look at last week’s game, there was no battle in the second half at all.”

There were multiple factors contributing to the WSU’s flop on offense.

Starting quarterback Jayden de Laura was out with an injury. Guarantano had his moments early on, but was plagued by decision-making issues, throwing three picks.

Star running back Max Borghi exited in the second quarter with an arm injury and didn’t return.

The offensive line – expected to be a strong point this year – had its worst game in recent memory, yielding eight sacks.

The Utes sent pressure and confused WSU’s O-line with stunts. The Cougars aren’t settled on their starters up front – besides tackles Liam Ryan and Lucas, the latter of whom is consistently grading out as one of the Pac-12’s top players at his position, according to Pro Football Focus.

Brian Greene and Ma’ake Fifita rotated at the guard positions with Jarrett Kingston and Cade Beresford throughout.

“I’ll have to see (on film) about the sacks – (whether it was) the quarterback hanging onto it, if one guy got beat, if it was the running back in pass protection,” Rolovich said. “I know they’re not happy with that number. I expect the leadership, especially at that group, will continue their path and get better and be better next week.”

Rolovich lamented his team’s lack of fireworks on offense this year, its constant 4-yard passes and 4-yard runs. He admitted that it might be time to reevaluate the run-and-shoot.

WSU gets outside receivers involved

Positive takeaways regarding the Cougs’ offense vs. Utah were sparse at best.

But WSU did manage to make progress on one of its primary objectives: spreading the ball around more to its pass-catchers on the outsides.

Entering the day, slotbacks Travell Harris and Calvin Jackson Jr. had accounted for 60% of the Cougars’ receiving yardage and five of their six touchdowns through the air.

Across three games, De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie – WSU’s starting receivers at the “X” and “Z” positions, respectively – had combined for only 126 yards on 12 catches (out of the Cougs’ receiving totals of 703 yards and 61 receptions).

They’d been targeted by Cougs quarterbacks 28 times.

The tandem more than doubled its production in Salt Lake City, tallying 138 combined yards on 12 grabs.

Stribling, the breakout true freshman from Hawaii, was the Cougars’ offensive bright spot against Utah. He tallied career bests of 93 yards on six catches and recorded his first collegiate touchdown.

The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder was effective in space over the middle, recording catches of 16, 22 and 26 yards on in routes.

Early in the third quarter, Stribling cut hard to his right across the middle, shaking off his defender. Jarrett Guarantano threw a pass a bit high and behind his intended target, but Stribling stretched for an acrobatic grab and turned upfield for a 26-yard touchdown.

He’s up to 181 yards on 15 receptions.

“He’s coming straight from high school and right into Pac-12 football. That’s a big difference and a lot of people don’t recognize that,” slot receiver Lincoln Victor said of Stribling last week when asked to name an impressive new player. “He’s done a great job of just being level-headed, doing the right thing and making plays for us.”

Ollie, a sophomore and first-year starter, fashioned space on comebackers near the sideline to register a career-high 45 yards on five catches, improving his season totals to 83 yards on eight receptions.

“Both made some pretty good, contested catches,” Rolovich said, “Donovan especially. I think he’s very invested emotionally. … Glad we got them the ball.”

The passing game in the run-and-shoot offense traditionally “goes through the slots,” Rolovich said last week. But he acknowledged that the Cougars’ passing attack needs to be less predictable.

There was some miscommunication between Guarantano and Ollie on the game-sealing play. The Cougs had time enough for one final series. They were at their 41-yard line, facing a 17-14 deficit on a fourth-and-8 with 2:19 to play. It appeared Guarantano thought Ollie would be running a hitch or comeback route, but the receiver never turned his head and instead darted downfield past Utah cornerback Clark Phillips.

Phillips didn’t follow Ollie and kept his eyes on Guarantano, who fired a pass directly to the Utah defender. Phillips weaved through traffic after the pick for a 54-yard score.