How good is the Washington State football team?
We’re about to find out.
The Cougars had plenty of reason to celebrate last weekend after opening the coach Nick Rolovich era with a 38-28 victory at Oregon State, despite missing 32 players, including star running back Max Borghi.
As nice as that win was, it was against the Beavers, picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North, one spot ahead of the Cougars.
Coming to Pullman on Saturday is No. 11 Oregon (1-0), the team picked to win the Pac-12 North, and if the Cougars could pull off another win, the nation would take notice this time.
Don’t expect the Cougars, 10 1/2-point underdogs, to be intimidated. The Ducks needed a field goal as time expired last season to snap a four-game losing streak against Washington State.
“The players on the team, especially the older ones, they have had some success against Oregon … and they’ve won a bunch of games (against the Ducks),” said Rolovich, who did not provide an update this week on Borghi or the other players who missed last week’s game. “It’s probably more on the coaches to get over the Oregon flash factor and the intimidation they have created.
“We’ll be leaning on some of our older players and how they’re approaching it, that’s the mindset we’re all trying to take and I think that gives us a good opportunity to start the game in a mindset where you don’t look at yourself as inferior.”
The teams’ young quarterbacks are getting plenty of attention — WSU’s true freshman Jayden de Laura and Oregon sophomore Tyler Shough — but the running games could be just as important in determining which team wins, especially with the turf at Martin Stadium looking like a frozen tundra with heavy snow hitting Pullman this week. More precipitation is expected on a chilly Saturday night, but will likely be in the form of rain.
Deon McIntosh had a career-high 147 rushing yards for WSU in the win over Oregon State and is expected to be the lead back again this week for the Cougars. Oregon features CJ Verdell, who had a career-high 257 rushing yards in Oregon’s 37-35 win over WSU last season.
“Their downhill run game and their tailbacks are really talented,” Rolovich said.
Said WSU senior linebacker Jahad Woods, who led the Pac-12 in tackles last season with 141: “CJ is a real, tough physical slasher, he’s fast and he’s an all-around back. He’s definitely going to be a tough matchup, but I have full confidence in our scheme and our defense and how we play that we will be able to contain him.”
If the Cougars can do that, their chances will improve greatly.
Washington State could also use another good game from de Laura, who was the first true freshman to start a season opener for the Cougars. So far, so good, after completing 18 of 33 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns and running for 43 yards.
“Congratulations to him: He played great, and got a win first start,” Rolovich said. “But there is a lot that he can even do better and that was our talk over the weekend.”
WSU junior receiver Jamire Calvin was impressed with de Laura’s performance.
“He played very well, especially for a first game against a Pac-12 team, power-five conference, against a very good team and he executed and did what he was supposed to do,” Calvin said.
The challenge is even bigger this week.
“I feel like we match up good against anybody in the country,” Calvin said of the receivers. “Oregon, they do have a really good secondary but the last couple of years we’ve been playing them, we got a feel for them and they got a feel for us. We know what to expect. … We’re not too worried about it. If we stick to the things we do and execute, we’ll be just fine.”
For whatever reason, it has been a good matchup for the WSU team as a whole in recent years.
“It’s just one of those things in football where you just end up matching up with one team really well, and that’s what we do with Oregon, we match up really well with them,” Calvin said.