You know that part in Avengers: Infinity War where Dr. Strange says he’s looked into the future, sees 14,000,605 scenarios in which they battle Thanos for the future of the universe, and only one scenario results in success?
I never thought the Washington State Cougars’ chances of beating the Oregon State Beavers were that remote, nor do I think that 38-28 was a particularly impossible score line. But if you asked me to game out how that victory might unfold? One in 14,000,605 might not be all that far off.
The last time I remember being this pleasantly surprised after an opener was 2011, and while there’s really no need to talk about that particular season any further, I had sort of forgotten the kind of unbridled joy and optimism that such a victory to open the season can generate.
To start a season with a game that meets — or maybe even exceeds — your highest of expectations is some kind of fun. This is the fourth consecutive season we’ve started with a win, but this one feels different for so many reasons. This wasn’t Montana State, Wyoming, or New Mexico State; this was a conference opponent and also a peer institution that has been trying to pull itself up to our level for years now. We directly recruit against them all the time.
This was a measuring stick game in which you’d expect the established program to have all the advantages, given all of the external circumstances surrounding the contest.
There were opportunities for this thing to go off the rails right off the bat. Jayden de Laura’s first play was a pass ... and it was a pretty terrible throw! Out routes where the ball is behind the receiver are prime “pick 6” candidates. Yeesh. The second play was a modest run that was capped by a dead ball personal foul against Liam Ryan. (Watching the replay, it sure looked like he was just finishing the block with a little extra sauce, which shouldn’t be worth 15 yards, but whatever.)
That left WSU with 3rd-and-a-mile. What should Nick Rolovich do? It surely had to be tempting to dial up whatever the 3rd-and-a-mile play on the play sheet. Instead he did the prudent thing and called ... a draw. Waving the white flag was the perfect call, to be honest — you really don’t want your freshman QB put in a position to feel like he’s got to make a play deep in his own territory, so Rolovich did the smart thing and took the ball out of his hands. Maybe it was the easy call, but remember — this is his first game at WSU, too. He surely wants to get off to a fast start.
The word that came to mind throughout was poise. Glorious, uncommon poise.
It would play out again and again over the course of the game, with de Laura rebounding from weird penalties to throw touchdowns, escaping free rushers with a little twirl, scrambling up the field for a first down. (He terrifies me with the way he holds the ball, but ... does he have big hands? I feel like he has big hands.) Rolovich had what looked to be a simplified game plan for a bunch of guys new to his system, which proved to be smart. And the defense just made plays throughout, even as OSU started to come at them hard in the second half — they’d just get up and make another play.
It wasn’t perfection, but the moment never looked too big for anyone — everyone was resilient in the face of adversity, and that’s a heck of a testament to the preparation of Rolovich, his staff, and the players.
And that’s what I mean by this game playing out in such an unlikely fashion. It was WSU that looked like the veteran squad that was well acquainted with its systems and assignments, not the team that was starting a true freshman at quarterback and seeing its first live action under completely new offensive and defensive schemes.
There was not a player or position group that was overmatched or outmanned, and that included the coaches. I didn’t exactly expect WSU to face plant, but I certainly expected a bunch more rocky moments — a series of mistakes and critical gaffes — maybe pulling out a close victory. It never really crossed my mind as much of a plausible scenario that the Cougars would never trail, controlling the game throughout.
It’s tempting to try and extrapolate big things from a win like this. Really, we don’t know enough about Oregon State to know just how challenging of an opponent the Beavers were. Also, the first week is weird, anyway, even independent of, you know, everything.
That’s why I’m just enjoying it for what it was — a really fun game that felt real good. Maybe they have more of a chance to win three or four games than I originally thought. But I’m not going to dwell on that too much in the moment. I’m just going to put this on repeat:
What We Liked: Tackling!
In more than half of last season’s conference games, 38 points scored wouldn’t have been enough to win. So there’s definitely not going to be any pooh-poohing of the defensive performance from this guy, despite them giving up 283 yards and 21 points in the second half — including 203 yards in the fourth quarter.
The first half performance was impressive enough on its own: 168 yards given up, 5.1 yards per play, 7 points. They did it by not allowing Jermar Jefferson to get loose, putting some pressure on Tristan Gebbia in passing situations, and rallying to the ball after a catch was made and making a sure tackle.
In short, it was everything we didn’t see for virtually all of 2019.
Yes, the second half was pretty shaky. But that’s probably not a shock, knowing how short-handed they were — notable absences included Travion Brown and Tyrese Ross. And even then, they never gave up the back-breaking explosives that were all too common last season; the longest play from scrimmage was a 29-yard completion.
I’m not betting my house that these guys are “good,” but I’m at least willing to allow myself to think that maybe they can be average-ish enough times to give the offense a chance to win at least a couple more games. That’s pretty great!
Honorable Mention: SPECIAL FORCES
Who Impressed: Travell Harris
I think we all thought that Harris had this kind of performance in him, but let’s be honest: It was never going to happen in the Air Raid with Mike Leach as coach. The H position — inside receiver to the left of the quarterback — had become the clear fifth preference on most plays.
It was frustrating to not see Harris get the ball much, because his kick returns made it plainly clear what he was capable of. Not only was the speed obvious — I mean, he ran a 10.7-second 100-meter dash in high school — but so was the wiggle and also some strength. He was criminally underutilized.
It all came together, finally, on Saturday. He was allowed to get vertical in the Run and Shoot, catching a pair of long touchdowns in the corner of the end zone on pinpoint passes by de Laura. And then, the cherry on top:
And that’s the other thing we never would have seen: A little wrinkle of a play that’s outside the normal playbook to get the ball in the hands of a guy who can bust one in a position where the defense might be vulnerable. The little wiggle to get past the first linebacker allows him to accelerate past the wildly out-of-position safety and then cruise into the end zone.
It was a remarkable performance from a remarkable athlete, and there’s every reason to think this is just the beginning for Harris, who is only a junior.
Honorable mentions: Jayden de Laura, Deon McIntosh, Renard Bell, Brennan Jackson, Ron Stone Jr., Jaylen Watson.
What Needs Work: Just a little touch, man!
I am not a quarterback, nor have I ever been a quarterback, so I really have no idea how hard it is to do what I’m about to suggest.
But for goodness sake, Jayden — can you take a little heat off some of your throws?
For all the truly impressive things de Laura did during his debut, one of the head scratchers was watching him put everything he had into just about every pass, whether he needed it to travel 50 yards in the air or 15 or 5. It was a little jarring to watch, given the series of polished pocket passers we’ve watched distribute the ball for the last half decade.
It seemed to take his receivers by surprise, too, and there were maybe three or four plays that probably end up as completions if the ball isn’t thrown quite as hard.
Maybe it’s not easy for some guys to dial it back a little bit and retain their accuracy. Like I said, I really don’t know, but I’m pretty confident it can be done. It’ll also be interesting to see what kind of work can be done to tighten up his throwing motion a little and add a bit of arm strength, too.
But de Laura clearly already has so much going for him as a true freshman, and thinking about how much better he’ll get as he polishes himself as a passer is pretty damn exciting.
Up Next: The Oregon Ducks
As the kids say, stuff’s about to get real, y’all.
(Do kids still say that? Maybe not. I’m not in a classroom these days so I actually have no idea what they say anymore. Alas.)
The 11th-ranked Ducks are coming to Pullman, fresh off whipping the Stanford Cardinal, 35-14. How much you want to take away from that game is up to you, given that the Cardinal are (A) in a bit of a rebuild, and were (B) missing their starting quarterback.
I haven’t yet watched the game, so I don’t have a ton of insight to offer, beyond the fact that it looks like it was a pretty typical Oregon performance under Mario Cristobal — 40 rushes (6.7-yard average), 26 passes (8.7 yards per attempt).
However, something this morning caught my eye: The line opened at Oregon -10 and has already dropped to -7. Before the season, I’d have assumed this would have been well into the double digits, given the Ducks’ status as Pac-12 North favorites and the Cougs status as last place favorites.
But what the Cougs did on Saturday obviously has made some believers out of some people, and I wonder if Oregon yielding 243 yards on 9.1 yards per play to a backup quarterback in the second half raised a few eyebrows — especially as it relates to what WSU might be able to do this weekend, at home.
Kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Big FOX.