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The Monday After: Encouraged by what we *didn’t* see in 2020

Recapping the weirdest season we’ll ever watch.

It’s been a few weeks since the end of WSU’s football “season,” and I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to make sense of it. How much can we really take away from a season that only featured four games, and only resulted in one win?

Fans are unfailingly hardwired to try and make meaning out of results, something that’s outsized in football, anyway, because of the nature of its schedule. I’m obviously no different, as this weekly column exists to satisfy that urge.

But in so many ways, this season was about trying to resist that urge.

Despite my reservations about the wisdom of starting a season at all in the middle of a deadly pandemic, I was more or less all-in at the beginning. Maybe the entire endeavor was a bad idea, but games were going to happen whether I thought they should or not, and I love my Cougs, and I run a website where we all talk about the Cougs, so it seemed to me that the best course of action was just to do my best to convince myself it was all going to be fine. It was going to be weird and truncated but it also was likely to be highly interesting with a new coach, new schemes, and a new quarterback.

I mean, my favorite pro teams had navigated it without too much trouble; maybe this would go the same?

So, I jumped in, lining up the big takeaways from the opening win against Oregon State. I did the same thing the next week after the loss to Oregon.

Then, of course, everything went to crap. And somewhere in the midst of the positive COVID tests and cancellations, as well as the opt-outs and injuries that led to a depleted roster limping to the finish line ... I started wondering what the heck we were even doing here, and whether I should actually care at all about anything that was happening on the field.

It wasn’t easy to figure out the proper weight to assign to the remaining games; if fans are wired to make meaning out of results, then it also logically follows that we’re generally pretty bad at not making meaning out of results, no matter how much evidence we have to suggest that maybe there’s not a heck of a lot to be learned from a win or a loss. We want our team to win, and if we’re invested in whether our team wins, then it’s pretty hard to simultaneously believe that none of it actually matters.

But as the absurdity of the season took hold, the rational side of my brain started to chip away at the idea that any of it meant anything from a long-term perspective. It increasingly seemed like a very dumb idea to try and draw normal conclusions from a season that went from seven games to four games and a roster that, by the end, was heavily rotating in walk-ons on defense.

Yes, they were inconsistent. Losing two games in which they held halftime leads before falling apart is hardly ideal, and I’m not going to pretend that watching that collapse to Utah was fun. But I just can’t talk myself into believing it indicates anything about larger problems within the program or is something that ROLOVICH HAS TO FIX!!!

The best argument for accepting the idea that this season was simply about somehow making it to the end and nothing more came from the players themselves when they declared, before playing Utah, that — even if they won their final game to move to .500 on the season and thus qualify — they would reject any invitation to play in their sixth consecutive bowl game.

I think most of us just shrugged our shoulders and nodded when that news dropped, but I’m not sure that’s properly appreciating just how wild of a decision that was.

The very players who had reported to Pullman by August and were agitating to get back on the field in October had decided by December that they’d had enough. They only get so many chances to play football in their careers, and they preemptively decided that, no, they actually didn’t want to play any more games.

(Or, at least, they didn’t want to endure what it would take to play another game, which should give us all some sense of how grueling this was for them behind the scenes.)

I don’t mean to suggest the season was some kind of total loss; I’m sure Rolovich and his staff learned a lot about the players they have, and I’m sure lots of important individual development took place. I’m just saying that very little of that is readily apparent to you and me from having watched these four games.

So, if doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to extrapolate from this incredibly strange 1-3 season ... what else can we do with it?

I started thinking back to where my head was at following the hire of Nick Rolovich. My biggest fear after last season was that the program was on a general downward trajectory, and that 6-7 wasn’t going to be the bottom of that drop; adding a new head coach to the mix didn’t make me feel any better about that, particularly when we were moving on from one of the most consistent winners in all of college football.

To that end, I think what was most notable about this season is what we didn’t see.

Most importantly, we didn’t see a program that looks like it’s about to fall off a cliff, as I feared. There was no obvious sign that Oregon State was ready to leap past us, nor was it apparent that we were falling even further behind Oregon and Utah, the two teams who were the class of the conference last season. The offense — which obviously had been a strength for years — still looked pretty good, and the defense looked like it was making incremental improvement.

I also was concerned by what we might see at quarterback, even before Rolovich decided to move ahead with a true freshman. And when he did make that decision to roll with Jayden de Laura, I was even more concerned, wondering just what that said about Cammon Cooper and Gunner Cruz.

But I didn’t see a QB who was overmatched or prone to the kind of immaturity we’d expect from a true freshman. De Laura had some bad moments, but he also had plenty of good ones, and while I don’t know if it’s inevitable that he becomes a star, he at least showed that we can expect competence as a baseline going forward. The most important position on the field wasn’t a mess.

The other thing I worried about was how well this coaching staff would adjust to its transition to the Power 5. When I saw Rolovich was bringing his guys from Hawaii to run the offense while turning the defense over to some young guys from Wyoming ... let’s just say the call backs to Paul Wulff were just a little too close for my comfort, no matter how much I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But we didn’t see a staff that was strategically overmatched. The offense was fun and interesting and largely effective despite making the transition to a new system without any of the traditional offseason practices or workouts. The defense, meanwhile, had long stretches of okay-ness, which we couldn’t say very much last year. In particular, the first halves of games went better than the second halves. You can obviously read one of two ways, and I’ll choose to interpret as savvy game planning.

I also was concerned they’d be overmatched on the recruiting trail. And again, early on, things were looking just a little too Wulffian. However, the 2021 class ended up falling more or less in line with what we’d come to expect under Mike Leach, which I think is actually a pretty solid accomplishment, given how important it is for recruits to come see Pullman. Whether this staff will be able to maximize that talent the way that Leach did is obviously yet to be determined, but there’s really no reason to worry that the talent baseline is dropping.

It’s important to remember that none of this means good stuff is guaranteed in the future, and I don’t think it has any predictive value for next season, beyond believing that the floor is unlikely to fall out. But that last thing actually is a nice thing to be able to say, because in 2021, being able to feel like bad stuff isn’t right around the corner is a welcome change.

What We Liked: Everyone is alive

NCAA Football: Washington State at Utah Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

When the Pac-12 was debating whether to play this season, it wasn’t a slam dunk that every team would come through this thing seriously unscathed by the virus. I’m sure there are readers who will call me alarmist or whatever, citing the low incidence of serious complications among people in the age group of the team, and dismiss this is as some kind of accomplishment.

But it’s important to note that even though the risk from the virus now appears to be very small to people between the ages of 18 and 24, there still is some risk. Florida Gators basketball star Keyontae Johnson was hospitalized and diagnosed with COVID-related myocarditis after collapsing into an unresponsive state on the court. A 19-year-old baseball player died over the summer from COVID. And this doesn’t even acknowledge the risk to the staff, which is obviously in a higher-risk group.

As far as we know, there have been no major complications from COVID for any of the players or staff. No matter what you think, that was never a foregone conclusion, and I’m relieved that we appear to have made it through.

Who Impressed: So many!

Oregon v Washington State
Ayden Hector (36) was a pleasant surprise.
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

I typically highlight just one player in this spot, but since this is looking at the season as a whole, let’s highlight a few of the pleasant surprises!

  • Jaylen Watson: I tried to find a picture of Watson to lead this section, but there was only one — of him trying to tackle an Oregon running back. I suspect that’s largely because the ball was rarely thrown toward the junior college transfer cornerback. Since broadcasters have yet to move into the modern day and still insist on tight angles of the pass rush when the QB drops back to pass, it’s tough to know exactly what it looked like on his side of the field, but it’s logical to conclude there wasn’t a lot of space. That’s a pretty huge development for a defense that has struggled at corner for years.
  • Ayden Hector: The true freshman quickly showed why he was a four-star recruit, forcing his way onto the field at safety almost directly out of the gate. His speed, strength, and instincts paid off immediately, and he averaged four tackles in his three games while picking up a couple of fumble recoveries and an interception. He’s going to be an impact player for years to come.
  • Deon McIntosh: Another junior college transfer, McIntosh’s first season as a running back in Pullman could best be described as “meh.” But after a year in the nutrition and strength program, McIntosh was absolutely ready when he was thrust into the primary ball carrier role following an injury to Max Borghi. We were terrified of losing Borghi, but McIntosh carried the load almost singlehandedly over the first three games, ending the season with more than 300 yards at more than six yards a carry. His upright running style makes him look like a huge target to defenses, but he routinely makes guys miss and steps out of tackles. I’m excited to see more of him next year.

(Side note: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Watson was twice a USC commit, Hector was headed to Stanford, and McIntosh is a transfer from Notre Dame. WSU has to make it a habit to find ways to add that kind of talent to the roster, and I think Rolovich understands that.)

  • Brennan Jackson: After sitting out almost all of 2019 after suffering a leg injury, Jackson provided some hope this year for a pass rush that desperately needed some. The redshirt sophomore seemed to constantly be around the ball, so much so that I was surprised to learn he only had 1.5 sacks (although he did also have a pair of tackles for loss). His potential — along with Ron Stone Jr. on the other side — give us hope of finally having a functional pass rush once again in 2021.

What Needs Work: Defensive depth

NCAA Football: Washington State at Utah Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

It’s pretty easy to see where the biggest improvement needs to come from next year. Amidst the flashes of okay-ness, it was clear the defense still needed a lot of work and that the depth was perilously thin, thanks to injuries, opt-outs, transfers, and just not enough Pac-12-level talent on the roster in general.

It’s possible that this season ends up paying dividends down the road; given that WSU generally recruits players who need some time to develop, having a year that doesn’t count against the eligibility clock might benefit the Cougs more than some other programs. At least, that’s what I’m hoping for! Because it’s apparent that this defense needs more people to break through next season.

Up Next: Pharmaceutical intervention!

A health worker wearing a face mask holds a syringe with a... Photo by Naveen Sharma/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

I’m going to presume there will be enough doses of the COVID vaccine for it to make its way to college football before next season. Maybe even enough that we’ll get to gather in Pullman on September 4!

See y’all in the fall.

I hope.

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