For the first time in 11 months, the Washington State Cougars played a football game that mattered, and perhaps by the skin of their teeth.
Moments after a 38-28 victory Saturday at Oregon State, first-year coach Nick Rolovich revealed his team was missing 32 players.
Rolovich didn’t clarify how many of the 32 absences were due to injuries or COVID-19.
“Every time something bad happens I say, ‘Good. I’m gonna handle it. We’re going to handle it,’” Rolovich said. “We showed up here, I said ‘What are we going to do? Because we’re here, because we’re here boy.’ That’s why. That’s all we had to do. We had an opportunity to play a football game tonight and just getting to this moment is an incredible tribute.”
According to a report by 247Sports.com, WSU athletic director Pat Chun said before the game only five WSU student-athletes total have tested positive for coronavirus since testing began during the summer.
Rolovich wanted to concentrate on the players he had on hand Saturday night.
“It feels great to know how much it mattered to those kids who played tonight,” Rolovich said. “What they’ve been through since March, what we’ve been through with the guys having to step up, they deserve this feeling and I’m just honored to be a part of this group.”
One day later, we review three important aspects of the 10-point victory at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Ore.
Old Coug, new tricks
The Cougars proved they could establish a ground game Saturday night, and not just in the traditional manner either, rushing for 229 yards and three touchdowns.
It was anticipated WSU’s tailbacks would have a more prevalent role running between the tackles in Rolovich’s run-and-shoot. Deon McIntosh, filling in for injured Max Borghi, had 18 carries for 147 yards – the top individual rushing performance by a Cougar in 13 years.
It was anticipated the run-and-shoot would create more rushing opportunities for the quarterback and Jayden de Laura took his chances when they were available, rushing eight times for 43 yards and a touchdown.
But this was a new wrinkle: two carries for 49 yards and one touchdown for Travell Harris. Make that, two carries for 49 yards and one touchdown for wide receiver Travell Harris.
The dynamic junior might be the Pac-12’s best option for offensive player of the week honors, matching his career high with seven catches, with a career-best 107 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions. Harris also had two kick returns for 27 yards to put him at 183 all-purpose yards for the night.
Harris’ second handoff came on a counter where the receiver set out in motion, collected the ball from de Laura and cut back into the middle of the field before sprinting to the end zone for a 44-yard touchdown.
In this age of spread offenses, what used to be know as the “H” back, or halfback, is now the “H” receiver, which could explain why Harris is the No. 1 choice on the touchdown play. Harris was productive as a rusher at Jesuit High in Tampa, Fla., rushing for seven touchdowns as a junior and senior with 250 rushing yards his senior year in 2016.
O-line holds up
One could point to the rushing numbers listed above to suggest WSU’s offensive line played well in the season opener. It’s legitimate. The Cougars rushed for more than 7 yards per carry and consistently created running lanes for McIntosh.
But there’s another key number: zero.
That’s how many combined sacks and tackles-for-loss Oregon State’s stud pass-rusher, Hamilcar Rashed Jr., had Saturday. Rashed Jr., a likely first- or second-round draft choice in the NFL, never got a hand on de Laura and didn’t impact the game the way he needed in order to guarantee an OSU victory.
De Laura was sacked just once, turning into the OSU pass-rush once while trying to escape the pocket in the second half – an error Rolovich put on himself. Aside from that, the freshman quarterback generally had enough time to sit in the pocket, move through his progressions and take off when OSU’s defense gave him the space.
“We didn’t want to hang onto the ball real long, not that we didn’t have confidence in our O-line, but wanted to get Jayden comfortable,” Rolovich said. “I think the O-line’s incredibly talented, I think they did some things early on that maybe were unexpected and they were able to mid-stream adjust. I think there was some excellent communication … the O-line and running backs sitting together, the quarterbacks and receivers sitting with each other.”
Tale of two defenses
Most of the conversation about WSU’s defensive performance surrounded a strong first half in which the Cougars allowed just a single touchdown and 168 yards of total offense. In other words, a complete turnaround from last season.
“What a great job by coach Dickert (Jake Dickert, the defensive coordinator) and the defensive staff.” Rolovich said. “So prepared, I’m sure there’s things that they’re going to look at the film and wish they did better, but just a consistent effort for all 11 guys who were on the field at whatever time.
“They really played together and really a great tribute to what they’ve done and the defensive side of the ball. Those defensive kids, they believed and it feels good to have something to believe in. I’m very happy for them. … Seven points in the first half and there’s some good scheme on the offensive side of the ball for Oregon State.”
Indeed, there was plenty of good. The Cougars also produced four quarterback sacks and held the Beavers to 5.6 yards per play, while WSU’s offense generated 7.2.
Generally speaking, the play of Dickert’s defense left fans optimistic and for good reason, especially considering WSU conceded 53 points and 601 yards of total offense to the same OSU team last year. Still, it was far from perfect.
The Cougars conceded 21 points in the second half and, if not for the play of de Laura, Harris, McIntosh and the offense, plus a clutch onside kick recovery, they might have been staring at 0-1 after an offensive surge from the Beavers in the fourth quarter. OSU scored 14 points in the final period and gained 203 yards of offense.
WSU’s defensive transformation was never going to happen overnight, but if the Cougars plan to snatch a few more victories in a shortened season, they’ll need to finish the game with as much urgency as they opened it with.