PULLMAN — For the second time in eight days, Washington State went over 100 plays, this time simulating a game scenario in the midafternoon rather than early evening, and adding an officiating crew to the mix to give the Cougars a better idea of what’ll fly and what won’t when they suit up for the season opener in 14 days.
The quarterback race once again was the top storyline at Martin Stadium, and perhaps there’s more clarity on that front than there was a week ago.
We break down the signal-callers and provide four other impressions from scrimmage No. 2.
1. Gordon separates
Anthony Gordon left a trail hints all week and Saturday Mike Leach offered his first real clue as to which of his quarterbacks may be under center when Washington State hosts New Mexico State on Aug. 31.
The coach hasn’t budged this fall when he’s been asked to handicap the QB race between Gordon, Gage Gubrud and Trey Tinsley, usually resorting to “I thought they all played well” or “each of them did some good things.” But Leach, by his standards, had a pretty succinct answer Saturday when he was asked if either Gubrud or Gordon had an edge over the other.
“I thought Gordon played the best,” Leach said.
“What did he do best?” the coach was asked as a follow-up.
“Moved the offense and then scored,” Leach answered.
Comparing the two was difficult at times because the No. 1 offensive line almost exclusively played against the No. 2 defensive line, and vice versa. But Gubrud stumbled out of the gates, throwing an interception to Justus Rogers on just his second pass attempt of the scrimmage and the linebacker brought it back for a touchdown.
Gubrud’s initial drive didn’t get much better. He threw a pretty touchdown to Rodrick Fisher, but was touch-sacked by Willie Taylor III and finished his day completing just 4-of-9 passes.
That was in stark contrast to what Gordon did on his first drive. The offense was humming with the redshirt senior under center and moved into the red zone at warp speed, thanks to Gordon’s long strike to Renard Bell. The QB hit Calvin Jackson Jr. on a cross into the back of the end zone, then found Bell on a short out route for his second TD.
Gubrud posted better numbers on the second and third drives, but the first series felt like a definitive exclamation point for Gordon, who vastly outplayed Gubrud two days ago and had the slight edge Friday as well.
“All fall camp I’ve been feeling pretty good,” Gordon said. “I’ve been playing with a lot of confidence and it just kind of rolled throughout today. Coach Leach got us into some good plays and then offensive line was playing really good and got me some time to get the ball downfield and our receivers did real good with the ball in their hands.”
Neither QB had been too interception prone since the team returned from Lewiston, but this number on Gordon is nothing short of stellar: since day five of camp, he’s thrown 25 touchdowns compared to zero interceptions.
2. Defense still ‘behind’
After the scrimmage, Tracy Claeys ran down the list of areas where his defense needs to improve before the Cougars play a real opponent two weeks for now. It’s one that’s still too long for the defensive coordinator’s liking.
“Let’s see … pass rush, coverage, stopping the run, contain on the quarterback, blah, blah, blah,” Claeys said. “A lot of work to do in 10 days.”
“I just don’t think we’re where we need to be. We’re behind, but the good thing is we’ve got 10 days to try to get it figured out.”
Scrimmages are often tailored to the offense and even if the defense makes a stop to “get off the field,” coaches usually advance the ball to give both units practice in different parts of the field. Considering that, the defense somewhat mitigated the damage, allowing eight total touchdowns on nine offensive drives.
Rogers, who’s been a turnover machine through the first two weeks of camp, set a tone with his early interception that gave the defense a touchdown before the offense could punch one in. But Claeys may have been perturbed that his unit didn’t produce another turnover until Sky Stefonic stripped Jouvensly Bazil with mostly second and third-team players on the field.
The team’s young defensive backs also struggled to contain WSU’s throng of tall, athletic receivers. With zebras on the field for the first time this fall, defensive players committed three pass interference penalties and were whistled for a handful of offside calls.
“Add another thing to the list,” Claeys said. “Pass interference, we’ve got to work on that, too.”
3. Fisher shines again
WSU’s best “X” wide receiver over the last week and a half or so hasn’t been either of the players that probably would’ve shown up on a preseason projected depth chart.
Rodrick Fisher, the redshirt freshman out of Spokane, has earned himself some press since the team left Sacajawea Junior High and playing time may be next. Fisher’s been one of the most consistent players in practice and one of the most productive players in these scrimmages.
As a matter of fact, his numbers in both have been identical: five receptions, which led the Cougars in both instances, to go with 68 yards and two touchdowns.
“Man, Rod’s came a long way since I’ve got here,” fellow “X” receiver Calvin Jackson Jr. said. “He’s gotten a lot quicker, a lot more confident in his hands and catching a lot more balls than usual. I’m happy for him. Me, him and Tay (Martin), we’re all competing for the spot. It’s not just us two (Martin and Jackson), so Rod’s stepping up a lot and I’m proud of him.”
Fisher’s first TD reception came on a play down the left sideline in which the 6-foot-2, 195-pound receiver gained a step on fellow Spokanite Armani Marsh, then cradled in a pass from Gubrud over his left shoulder before beating the cornerback to the end zone.
The East Valley grad beat Marsh for another TD later on, running a route into the middle of the end zone, where Gubrud found him for an easy six.
“I think it started about two weeks ago,” Leach said of Fisher’s recent surge. “He’s explosive, he’s gotten more decisive and he’s gotten more consistent. I think he’s on an upswing, for sure.”
4. Cornerback controversy
On top of everything else Claeys has to solve in a few weeks’ time, the defensive coordinator and position coach Darcel McBath will have to determine who’s starting at the cornerback spot opposite Marcus Strong.
For nearly a week in Lewiston and a few days in Pullman, coaches seemed to favor junior college transfer Derrick Langford. Since Sunday, though, it’s been Marsh, a redshirt sophomore, occupying the spot. Both logged plenty of reps in the second scrimmage, but Marsh was the one working with the No. 1 defense.
“That’s a sign of confusion,” Claeys said. “So, like I say, we’ve got 10 days to figure it out. Then we’ll see what happens. But it’s a close (battle), we’re grading it every day and that’s the one thing about it, I’m a little frustrated because we’re experimenting here a little bit too late. I’d rather not be experimenting right now.”
Langford posted a better stat line, recording two solo tackles and one pass breakup that could’ve been an interception. Marsh had one tackle, no PBUs and was beat by Cougars receivers on a few touchdowns.
5. Mazza’s streak ends
The kickers struggled to get in a groove on the hot, natural grass field at Sacajawea, but it appears they’ve done so in a much more comfortable setting at Martin Stadium.
And most important, returning placekicker Blake Mazza has been the best of the bunch.
Even while wearing a cast on one arm, the redshirt sophomore made three of his four field goals, hitting from 40, 46 and 50 yards out before ending his streak of six consecutive scrimmage makes with a miss from 42 yards out.
But the Cougars will gladly take Mazza’s ratio. After making a 30-yarder, 39-yarder and 45-yarder in the first scrimmage, the Texan finishes having made six of his seven kicks.
Actually, none of the kickers missed in the first scrimmage, going 7-of-7, and they were 6-of-9 Saturday to finish 13-of-16. Jack Crane was good from 40 yards and 50 yards, but missed from 46 and 42. Dean Janikowski made his only try, from 40 yards.
Along with the regular non-participants, there were a few other notable players that were held out of the scrimmage, perhaps just for precautionary reasons. Nickel Skyler Thomas and center Fred Mauigoa didn’t participate after practicing earlier in the week. Defensive end Nnamdi Oguayo missed a few practices earlier in the week, but participated Friday. Those three joined a list of non-participants that included wide receiver Jamire Calvin, linebacker Dillon Sherman, quarterback John Bledsoe, offensive lineman Jarrett Kingston, linebacker David Aldapa and wide receiver Billy Pospisil.