PULLMAN — The optimism lasted for about 30 minutes of game time.

Washington State was dismantling USC. Cougar fans don’t often get the chance to say that.

The Trojans’ coach was fired earlier in the week, and their experienced quarterback went down with an injury on their first drive. They were playing like a team lacking leadership, and WSU cashed in early.

Then crashed.

The sparsely populated crowd at a drizzly Gesa Field watched helplessly Saturday as the Cougars blew a double-digit lead for the fourth time under coach Nick Rolovich, surrendering 45 unanswered points in this one.

A variety of problems cropped up about midway through the Cougs’ 45-14 downer against USC.

WSU lost its spark with the loss of its quarterback, and lost the ball on the third-quarter kickoff. Its defense got fatigued, and was carved up by a first-timer at quarterback. Its embattled boss was put in an even tighter spot than before.

It doesn’t get much easier Saturday, when WSU meets Utah in Salt Lake City.

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“This was a team loss,” tackle Abraham Lucas said. “When bad things happen, how do you respond?”

Will they rebound or dig a deeper hole vs. the Utes? Before we look ahead, let’s recap.

QB uneasiness resurfacing at WSU

It finally felt like the Cougars’ uncertainty concerning their quarterback position was a thing of the past.

Not so fast.

Sophomore Jayden de Laura had won back the job with a solid relief performance in Week 1. He shined against Portland State, and had a fine first half vs. USC, exuding confidence in his adjustments at the line of scrimmage and dissecting the Trojan secondary with crisp midrange passing.

De Laura’s first three series accounted for 192 of the Cougs’ 279 total yards. Slotbacks Calvin Jackson Jr. and Travell Harris were largely uncoverable — they combined for 143 yards on 15 grabs, with Harris scoring twice.

De Laura emerged from the locker room after halftime with a limp and a brace on his left leg. He hadn’t shown signs of discomfort before then.

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Grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano, who started in Week 1 vs. Utah State before suffering an injury, was in full uniform. Instead, junior Cammon Cooper and sophomore walk-on Victor Gabalis began warming up.

The general assumption was that Guarantano or Cooper would be the first two in line to take over for de Laura. Apparently, Guarantano wasn’t available. Rolovich sent out Gabalis, much to the surprise of the onlookers at Gesa Field.

WSU’s offense was without every bit of its prior moxie when the third quarter started, setting the stage for the Trojans’ runaway victory.

“I don’t think we were conservative, we were just ineffective,” Rolovich said. “I gotta see the film, but I’m not sure it all falls on Victor’s shoulders either.”

The Cougars went three-and-out on consecutive possessions and USC went ahead by a score. Not long after, an interception by Armani Marsh near WSU’s goal line was squandered when Gabalis took a blindside sack in the end zone. He fumbled, and the Trojans recovered to extend their edge to 28-14.

De Laura signaled to Rolovich that he felt ready to re-enter. He tried to revive WSU’s offense immediately with a deep ball, but was intercepted.

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“Jayden started feeling a little better on the sideline, wanted to go back in and couldn’t do it completely,” Rolovich said. “He didn’t feel as confident as you should be as a quarterback.”

The critical third quarter ended — the Cougars didn’t gain a yard in the period, and USC had put it away with four touchdowns.

Gabalis passed 6 of 10 for 19 yards and was sacked twice.

Cooper led a garbage-time possession that went 55 yards before a last-ditch heave to the end zone was picked off. If you don’t count that final series, the Cougars leaned on a shaky pass game and gained 32 yards in the second half.

Rolovich didn’t provide an update on de Laura’s status, but it’s at least a good sign that he played after halftime. The quarterback’s health will be a primary topic in the lead-up to WSU’s matchup with defense-minded Utah.

Rolovich said Gabalis and Cooper are neck and neck in the competition for the second- or third-string role.

“We’ll see how everyone’s healthy and who we’ll go with against Utah,” he said.

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WSU passing defense struggles against rookie

The Cougs’ lifeless offense betrayed its defense in the second half, totaling only 12 yards over five possessions that averaged out to around a minute apiece.

Two of those series lasted 30 seconds combined.

WSU’s defenders were clearly gassed, and Rolovich said as much during his postgame media session.

“They were just on the field way too many plays,” he acknowledged.

USC tallied 24 of its 38 second-half points in that stretch to all but shut the door on a game that began so auspiciously for WSU, yet ended in embarrassment.

The Cougars had trouble containing true freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart, who was making his collegiate debut after veteran Kedon Slovis went down with an injury on the Trojans’ opening series.

Dart completed six passes of 30-plus yards against a Cougar defense that too often stranded its DBs on islands. USC entered this game with just seven passing plays of 15-plus yards, and more than doubled that number with eight on Saturday alone.

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Besides the two early drives that ended in turnovers, Dart settled in to pass 28 of 41 (68.3%) for 369 yards and four touchdowns against one pick. Despite the Trojans’ uninspired offensive start to the year — and the drizzly weather in Pullman — Dart set the USC record for most passing yards in a debut.

Dart connected with 10 different targets and even picked on standout WSU defensive backs Jaylen Watson and Derrick Langford Jr., neither of whom had a chance one-on-one with NFL-bound Trojan pass-catcher London (13 receptions, 170 yards, two touchdowns).

“In the second half, we (the defense) didn’t have as much momentum going our way,” said nickel Armani Marsh, who returned from an injury that sidelined him last week and was a bright spot with an interception and forced fumble.

A portion of Dart’s success certainly has to do with his improved protection, which might stem somewhat from the Cougars being fatigued in the third quarter.

In the first half, Dart absorbed a couple of big hits — a sack, three tackles for loss and three pressures.

He sat cleanly in the pocket after intermission. Dart was pressured once, and wrapped up behind the line once.

The Cougs’ rushing defense was easily the team’s most effective unit. WSU held USC to under 2 yards per carry and 48 yards in all. Trojan tailbacks logged only 16 rushes.

“Did a nice job stopping the run and did a nice job giving us opportunities in the first half, but (it doesn’t matter) if you can’t get a first down in the third quarter,” Rolovich said.