PULLMAN – As the Washington State Cougars walked off Gesa Field on Saturday, they were probably thinking, “Why not us?”
They had just knocked off Oregon State, which sat atop the Pac-12 North standings.
After a bleak start to their season, the Cougs (3-3, 2-2 Pac-12) are hitting their stride.
On a crisp homecoming day in Pullman, WSU’s run-and-shoot offense seemed to find a new gear, and its defense continued to have a knack for timely plays as the Cougars prevailed 31-24 in a back-and-forth affair.
WSU, riding back-to-back wins, aims to prolong its midseason surge when it entertains North adversary Stanford on Saturday.
Saturday’s game featured the Pac-12’s most productive rushing attack versus an electric passing game that is fast climbing the league’s ranks.
The clash of contrasting offensive styles resulted in a thriller, with WSU and Oregon State (4-2, 2-1) trading punches throughout the second half after a first 30 minutes defined by defensive stands and possessions fizzling out late.
The pass-happy Cougs ended up outdueling their Pac-12 foes for their eighth straight win in this series.
WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura couldn’t miss, especially in the second half.
The elusive sophomore didn’t need to use his legs. He hung in the pocket and scanned the field like a veteran signal-caller. De Laura went 15 of 18 after halftime, piling up a career-high 399 total passing yards and three touchdowns. Only three Power Five QBs tallied more yards in Week 6 than de Laura, who completed 69.6% of his attempts during his finest day in crimson and gray.
“He was efficient, took care of the ball,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said. “He’s grown the trust of everybody in this program. He’s making people around him better, and that is a key characteristic in good quarterback play. … I thought he played tremendous.”
The Cougs’ 491 yards of offense and 399 passing yards against Oregon State marked program high points in 10 games under the offensive-minded Rolovich, whose run-and-shoot system hadn’t produced more than 30 points in a game this year and was prone to second-half flops. This time, the Cougs rebounded from a few first-half stumbles.
The Nos. 2 and 3 longest plays of WSU’s season came after halftime against the Beavs. The Cougars connected on 11 passing plays that went for over 15 yards – their most in a single contest this year. Each of the seven targets to catch a pass had at least one reception of 15-plus yards.
“They weren’t terribly long passes, but Jayden does a really good job getting the ball out,” Rolovich said of the two 50-yard gainers to Joey Hobert and Travell Harris. “It was nice to see some yards after the catch and explosion. This team deserves so much credit for what they’ve been through. They kept grinding.”
OSU’s passing defense entered the game ranked 10th in the Pac-12, and WSU capitalized. But the Beavers boasted a top-50 scoring defense (21.6 ppg) and allowed more points vs. WSU than they had conceded to any other team this year.
The Cougs, who’d sailed down the field for touchdowns on three consecutive drives, got creative on what turned out to be the clincher with just over five minutes remaining.
Facing third-and-goal from OSU’s 1-yard line and a 24-all tie, WSU sent out an unusual heavy-set formation with an extra lineman and its four receivers all bunched up. De Laura faked a handoff to his left while running back Deon McIntosh slipped out right into open field. De Laura flipped it to him for an easy score to cap a 12-play, 75-yard drive that spanned nearly six minutes.
“We work on a lot of stuff that we haven’t put out there yet,” de Laura said. “It’s just patience, and when the time comes, we’re going to throw stuff out there.”
WSU was stuffed on a couple of head-scratching third-and-intermediate draw plays early in the game. As the afternoon progressed, the Cougars’ third-down play calls became more clever. They gave de Laura easy throws into soft spots over the middle. Their most impressive conversion came on a third-and-12 early on their game-winning drive. McIntosh took a screen pass 16 yards behind a wall of linemen.
“We’re on a good path right now,” de Laura said of the offense’s week-to-week development.
WSU was held to just 92 yards rushing by an OSU defense that ranks in the top 20 nationally in stopping the run. It was the third game this year in which the Cougars failed to surpass 100 yards on the ground.
They recorded 73 rushing yards on 13 attempts (5.6 yards per run) after the half as the offense opened up.
WSU often went with an empty backfield and five-wide sets to combat the Beavers’ loaded defensive front. When OSU began to remove bodies from the box, the Cougs found seams up the gut with McIntosh or Max Borghi.
“We get a bunch of six-man boxes, so the numbers aren’t great and (opponents) have played us that way probably the majority of the year,” Rolovich said. “We needed more out of the pass game because the numbers were on our side.”
Rolovich gave kudos to his offensive line for playing its second straight clean game. De Laura ran into a sack, but that was it. The Beavers were second in the Pac-12 with 12 sacks coming in.
“We were able to get through progressions, allowing our receivers to get open,” Rolovich said of an O-line that started senior Brian Greene at center for the first time since Week 1. “The offensive line deserves a ton of credit. … I thought Jayden would be appreciative of the time he had back there.”
Perhaps the brightest moment for WSU’s O-line came on Lincoln Victor’s first Cougar touchdown, a 14-yard screen play early in the fourth period. Three hogs made perfect blocks to clear a lane.
OSU’s ground-and-pound approach piled up 309 yards. The Beavers are the only Pac-12 team to top 300 yards in a game this year, and they have done so twice. They paced the Pac-12 with 36 points per game before this one.
They piled up 6.9 yards per carry, charging through WSU’s defensive front for 14 rushing plays of 10 or more yards.
“The game plan coming in was: We knew they were going to get yards, but just get them behind the sticks, make them have to beat us through the air,” said Brennan Jackson, who made a diving interception on a juggled ball in the red zone midway through the third quarter. “Later in the game, we started getting them behind the sticks, second-and-12, second-and-13 – making them have to throw the ball. … They got a lot of yards, but when it counted, we were able to get after the quarterback.”
Hicks III stands out
Of his team-leading and career-high 10 tackles, none was more important than the last.
Safety George Hicks III made a shoe-string stop on OSU’s Trey Lowe at the Cougs’ 4-yard line to preserve WSU’s one-touchdown lead and seal the result.
WSU edge Ron Stone Jr. recorded a clutch sack to set up an OSU fourth-and-19 with about half a minute to play. Lowe snuck out of the backfield and into open field to his left. Nolan dropped the ball off and crossed his fingers.
Lowe cut across the field and had room to run. The first-down marker was in his sights until Hicks charged in and laid out, clipping Lowe’s left leg and knocking him down 1 yard shy.
“He’s someone you can trust on the field 100% of the time,” Jackson said of Hicks, the former cornerback who made the move to free safety this year. Hicks, a grad student, was a reserve at his new post until starter Halid Djibril sustained a leg injury in Week 2.
“He just makes plays you need to make. On and off the field, he’s a student of the game. He understands things because he’s a leader on the team. He’s older. Coming down to the wire, I trust he’ll make the plays he needs to make, and he did today.”
With about a minute left in the second quarter, Hicks broke on a sit-down route near the far sideline and made a diving interception five plays after a Coug drive stalled in the red zone.
WSU’s offense couldn’t cash in – the first half ended with an interception in the end zone – but Hicks’ two plays epitomized the Cougar defense’s ever-growing identity of resilience.
“You can’t dwell on plays that happened prior,” Hicks said. “You’ve got to worry about the play that’s happening now. … Something bad is going to happen every game. When it does happen, shake it off and get it back on the next series or next play.”