PULLMAN — In his first meeting with Pac-12 foe USC, Jayden de Laura didn’t feel like himself.
Ahead of last season’s matchup with the Trojans, the Washington State quarterback missed more than a week of practice as he recovered from a case of COVID-19.
“COVID kind of hit me hard, so I wasn’t really all there mentally,” the sophomore said Wednesday at Martin Stadium after practice.
De Laura was picked off on consecutive passes in the first quarter of the Dec. 6 contest at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — the Cougars’ first game in 22 days because of coronavirus-spurred cancellations.
The Trojans capitalized with quick touchdowns.
USC took advantage of WSU’s lethargic offense and built a 35-point lead in the second period, then eased up after the half in a 38-13 rout that could have been worse.
“It was just mental mistakes during the game, stuff I know this year now,” de Laura said. “The preparation is way easier this year.”
De Laura won’t be rusty in Round 2 when the Cougars (1-1) host USC (1-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
This time, he’s coming off maybe his finest outing in crimson and gray.
“Tough first quarter. Entering the game, mentally, I’m not sure we were believing we could compete,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said of last year’s game against the Trojans. “I know Jayden had back-to-back throws that were intercepted. I’ve done that in my career. … (De Laura has) come back and become an improved player, an improved leader.”
The versatile signal caller from Hawaii lit up FCS visitor Portland State last weekend, completing 72% of his passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns. He added a couple of big plays with his feet in the 44-24 win.
Pro Football Focus gave de Laura’s performance a 92.4 grade — the third highest among all FBS quarterbacks in Week 2.
Rolovich said de Laura was even better than the stat book or film might suggest.
“It was his presence. It was how dialed-in he was,” Rolovich said. “Those types of things, I guess you could see a little bit off the film, but it was more of a feeling.”
De Laura “felt more confident” coming into the game with a full week of preparation as WSU’s starter under his belt.
“We were just all on the same page, starting from Monday’s practice,” he said. “Me and the receivers and the offensive line, our communication is really good right now.”
Grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano, who went down with an injury early in the Cougars’ Week 1 loss to Utah State, had won the preseason QB competition. But de Laura displayed poise off the bench, mature decision-making and explosive athleticism.
At this rate, it seems de Laura will establish himself as WSU’s No. 1 arm going forward. Rolovich has yet to confirm that.
So far, de Laura is 33 of 51 (64.7%) for 458 yards and four touchdowns against one interception. He has completed passes to eight receivers.
De Laura, who ranks 18th in the Power Five in passing efficiency, stretches the field with sometimes fearless throws and shows zip on efficient tosses in WSU’s short game.
Not counting lost yardage from sacks, the 6-foot, 190-pounder has gained 86 yards and scored once on 14 carries.
It’s clear de Laura’s game has developed over the past year, yet it’s difficult to gauge the full extent of his progress.
WSU’s first two opponents weren’t exactly heavyweights. The Cougars’ next game should produce a more solid evaluation of de Laura’s growth.
Although the Trojans are off to a slower start this year, their defense features the bulk of starters from the team that dismantled WSU’s offense nine months ago. USC finished the season 5-1 and second in the Pac-12, and enjoyed a top-three defense in the conference.
De Laura was sacked three times in the first half, and committed three giveaways. He went 18 of 29 for 134 yards.
“I can’t afford to take sacks and I can’t turn the ball over,” he said of keys to the rematch. “I just gotta take care of the ball and march downfield, and try to score every time we get the ball.”
De Laura, being the centerpiece of the offense, absorbed much of the blame for the previous game’s outcome, though there were issues elsewhere. USC quarterback Kedon Slovis completed 18 straight passes at one point and his favorite receiver, Amon-Ra St. Brown, totaled four first-quarter touchdown grabs.
“It wasn’t all on Jayden last year,” said Rolovich, whose team was without six key players, including standout cornerback Jaylen Watson — a former Trojans signee. “(USC) executed well on all three sides that first quarter. We settled in when the game was out of hand most likely.
“The defense was put in a bunch of bad spots last year in that game, but they still took the field with pride and went out and made some plays. I think if you erase that first quarter, it’s maybe a different game. But it’s not. We had to take our medicine. We gotta be prepared for a great team coming in here.”
De Laura recognizes “there is kind of something different” about the approaching challenge. It’s a bigger test against a better opponent, one which overwhelmed WSU’s offense a little less than a year ago.
Then again, de Laura noted that the Cougars won’t put any extra emphasis on this game because of their past matchup with USC. The circumstances have changed, especially for WSU’s improved quarterback position.