Can the Washington State Cougars get a lead against Utah on Saturday?
Perhaps the bigger question is this: If so, can they hold that lead?
The Cougars are 2-5 in coach Nick Rolovich’s short tenure as Washington State’s coach, and in four of those losses the Cougars have initially led by at least 12 points.
The biggest of the blown leads came last year at the same place WSU (1-2) is playing this week, Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. The Cougars took a surprising 28-7 lead at halftime, only to see the Utes score 38 unanswered points in the second half of a 45-28 Utah victory.
“There was a time during that game, according to ESPN, that we were 94.6% to win that game, and we didn’t get it done,” Rolovich said Monday about last year’s loss at Utah.
Rolovich said being able to finish off games like that was a big focus in the offseason.
“It will be good to get a chance to go down there and flush that from the memory banks,” Rolovich said.
There are other blown leads to flush, including last week’s 45-14 loss at home to USC after leading 14-0. The Cougars led 14-7 at halftime but were outscored 38-0 in the second half.
It certainly didn’t help that starting quarterback Jayden de Laura was injured in the second quarter, returning briefly in the third quarter before sitting again.
Rolovich pointed to his quarterback’s injury as one of the turning points, and there is no doubt that had a big impact on the game.
But de Laura was playing in the season opener when Utah State scored two touchdowns in the final 5 minutes, 25 seconds to rally for a 26-23 victory. And he was playing last season when WSU led Oregon 19-7 with 24 seconds left in the first half before losing 43-29.
“We definitely talked about it; I think it would be wrong not to talk about it,” Rolovich said of the blown leads. “… That happens once, maybe. But this is a trend and we need to see what we’re doing, and look at what we are doing.”
Rolovich said he didn’t go through the blown leads with “a fine tooth comb” when asked if had found a commonality, “but they all had a similar feeling.”
“That’s my job to stop that, and get our energy turned the right way,” he said. “That’s where I am starting with it.”
Making matters more difficult this week for the Cougars is an unsettled quarterback situation.
Rolovich would not disclose what de Laura’s injury was other than to say “it’s below the belt.” The coach said “it will be close” when asked if de Laura would be ready for Saturday.
If de Laura can’t play, graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano might get another chance. He started the season opener before suffering a leg injury and the coach indicated Guarantano might be able to return Saturday.
But Rolovich didn’t rule out playing Victor Gabalis or Cammon Cooper, who both saw action last week against USC.
What is more clear is that de Laura will likely be the starter if he is ready.
“I thought Jayden was playing very well, the best football that I have seen when I’ve been with him,” Rolovich said of de Laura’s performance against USC. “I thought he was in great command. I think he’s very energizing to the team.”
Who will play at quarterback will be resolved by game time. Meanwhile, the other question lingers:
Can Washington State keep a lead?
For this to be a successful WSU season, the answer needs to be yes.