Nick Rolovich is set to begin his second season at WSU, but in many ways it seems like his first after the Cougars played just four games last season because of COVID-19.
Without spring practices and then playing a condensed and interrupted schedule last year, it’s hard to put too much stock into what happened during the 1-3 season, particularly with how that translates to this season.
The Cougars certainly expect to be better this year, and here are three keys to WSU success.
A much better defense
The WSU offense has gotten much more attention than the defense over the past decade, but when the Cougars have been really successful (9-4 in 2015 and 2017, 11-2 in 2018) they have also had a defense ranked in the upper half of the Pac-12. The Cougar defense played well in spurts last season, most notably holding Oregon to just seven points until allowing a two-play touchdown drive in the final seconds of the first half.
But overall, it was not a good year for the WSU defense, as the Cougars ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in points allowed (38.5) and yards allowed (461.8). The excuses for that are legitimate: a new coaching staff without enough time to prepare because of COVID-19 and playing just four games for the same reason. Coach Nick Rolovich said he fully expects the defense to be much better under defensive coordinator Jake Dickert (“He’s a very good coach,” Rolovich said) and they will need to be for the Cougars to win many games.
Graduate transfer quarterback Jarrett Guarantano is convinced the unit is much better. “I think the defense is a lot better than I expected. I watched the tape in January of all the games and it doesn’t even look like the same defense whenever we are at practice. I really think this is a very good defense.”
Staying healthy means much more these days than avoiding injuries on the field. The Cougars will also need to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks, and that includes players and coaches. With the new rule being that a team forfeits if it can’t play a Pac-12 game because of COVID-19, it places more importance on avoiding outbreaks. The Cougars had three games canceled last year because of COVID, two because of opponents’ issues and one because of their own. With Rolovich coming out in July saying he wasn’t vaccinated, it puts a big spotlight on the program.
Avoiding on-field injuries is also important, of course. The Cougars suffered a costly one a couple of weeks before fall camp started when they lost receiver Renard Bell to a season-ending injury ACL injury.
Develop the passing game
It has seemed like a given for years that the Cougars would have one of the most productive passing offenses in the country. They might again this season, but there are some question marks. Who will emerge as the quarterback — Jayden de Laura or Guarantano? Will the QB who emerges do well enough to secure the job long term?
The receiver position has been a strength of the Cougars for several seasons. It might continue to be, but this is the most inexperienced and unproven receiver group in many years at WSU, and it got less proven with the loss of Bell.
The running game figures to be strong with Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh and if the WSU passing game is also effective, the Cougars should score a lot of points.