PULLMAN — Jake Dickert isn’t generally an advocate of spring football games. Injuries run too high for his liking and scrimmages are typically structured with the fan experience and television broadcasts in mind, limiting growth opportunities for a football team that’s allotted only 15 practices over the course of the spring season.
“I’m not a spring-game guy,” Dickert said. “I like when they’re over because everyone’s healthy; we’re ready to keep working.”
Dickert may not be a convert yet, but Saturday’s Crimson and Gray scrimmage had to be uplifting for Washington State’s defensive coordinator, who watched a unit that conceded 38.5 points per game last fall generate four takeaways and hold the offense to four touchdowns throughout the course of a rainy scrimmage that lasted approximately two hours at Martin Stadium.
According to the unique scoring system conceived by coach Nick Rolovich, the defense, which wore white uniforms, came out with a 74-37 victory over the crimson-colored offense.
“I think you would give it to the defense today, in terms of takeaways, scoreboard, consistent energy,” Rolovich said. “I think they played together, so they should feel good. They made a lot of football plays.”
First, a breakdown on the nontraditional scoring system.
Offensive points were distributed similar to the same way they are in a normal game, with touchdowns worth seven points and field goals worth three. Where it got wacky was the defense, which earned points if it made a fourth-stop in minus territory (5), created a takeaway in minus territory (7), forced a punt in plus territory (3), created a takeaway or fourth-down stop in plus territory (4) or held the offense to a field goal (2).
The Cougars squeezed in nearly 100 plays Saturday, with none more consequential than the first.
Graduate transfer quarterback Jarrett Guarantano made an errant pass into traffic and linebacker Justus Rogers stepped in front, intercepting the ball to put the defense on the board with seven quick points.
“That was an exciting play for me, especially being the first play,” Rogers said. “I just dropped to my landmark and read the quarterback’s eyes, melted flat and the ball came to me and I made that catch.”
The play had greater ramifications than that. As Guarantano released the ball, his right throwing hand clipped the shoulder pad of center Brian Greene. The Tennessee transfer left for the locker room and didn’t take another snap in what’s expected to be his only spring game as a WSU player, eventually returning to the sideline in sweatpants and a pullover.
“I think he’s going to be all right,” Rolovich said. “I think it was, you know, first play spring game, that’s a tough one. He’s a mature kid; he can handle it. I anticipate him being back with us. I don’t think it’s terribly bad, is what I’m getting.”
In January, many expected the spring game to be a crucial showcase for the three quarterbacks expected to vie for WSU’s starting job: Guarantano, redshirt junior Cammon Cooper and incumbent starter Jayden de Laura. Instead, with Guarantano injured and de Laura still suspended for his offseason DUI, it was Cooper who took the largest share of first-team reps, splitting with true freshman early enrollee Xavier Ward and walk-on Victor Gabalis.
Cooper finished 14 of 25 with 168 yards and two touchdowns, showing impressive touch a 4-yard throw to wide receiver Travell Harris in the corner of the end zone. Cooper later unleashed a deep, high-arcing bomb to outside receiver C.J. Moore, who fought off a defender to haul in the 41-yard pass. The chunk play set up Cooper’s second touchdown, a 7-yard pass to transfer receiver Lincoln Victor.
But Cooper couldn’t completely avoid the turnover-hungry defense, overthrowing Harris on a pass that wound up in the hands of all-conference cornerback Jaylen Watson. Later in the scrimmage, cornerback Derrick Langford broke up a throw from Gabalis and Armauni Archie was there to pick up the deflection. The defense padded its lead with a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter.
“I think the biggest thing it says is they’re buying in,” Dickert said of the defensive execution and energy. “We talk about ‘Code Cougs,’ we talk about playing hard, playing fast, playing together. That’s our mantra and I think they’re believing it. It can’t just be words on a piece of paper. These guys have got to live it every day, they’ve got to practice it, they’ve got to work out, they’ve got to take it to their academics. It’s got to be who they are and I think you’re starting to see that.”
With a handful of starters on both sides of the ball not participating on Saturday — a group that included running back Max Borghi, left tackle Liam Ryan, “Edge” rushers Willie Taylor III and Brennan Jackson, along with safety Daniel Isom — the spring game provided an opportunity for young players and walk-ons.
Freshman walk-on Kannon Katzer led the scrimmage in rushing with 71 yards on nine carries and scored two touchdowns. Walk-on receiver Drake Owen, who transferred from Central Washington, had a spring game-high six catches while sophomore Jay Wilkerson led all wideouts with 51 yards — those coming on just two catches. Sophomore “Edge” Gabriel Lopez and sophomore defensive tackle Nate James both had two sacks, while sophomore cornerback Chau Smith-Wade led the scrimmage with five tackles.