The Washington State Cougars host the BYU Cougars on Saturday afternoon in a rare midseason non-conference game for WSU (12:30 pm PT, FS1), which will be playing its first game under acting head coach Jake Dickert.
With this week’s turmoil following the dismissal of head coach Nick Rolovich, this matchup is much tougher to predict. One thing that is unlikely with this group of Washington State players is the possibility of folding in the face of adversity. They’ve been dealing with it all season, and the upperclassmen have been through so much during their time in Pullman. If any team can bounce back from an emotional event, it’s this one.
Let’s look at the key players and trends that will impact the Cougs vs. Cougs.
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When BYU has the ball...
Quarterback Jaren Hall leads a BYU offense that is achieving a near-perfect execution of the classic idea of balance: 220 runs (minus sacks) and 219 passes (adding sacks to pass attempts). In five appearances this season, Hall has hit on 62% of his passes for 7.9 yards per attempt, nine touchdowns, and three interceptions.
Passing has been the strength of BYU’s attack, according to expected points added (EPA) and success rate from cfb-graphs.com. The Provo Cougars rank 30th in passing EPA and 22nd in passing success rate. Three receivers have accumulated the bulk of the receptions—Gunner Romney (26 catches/452 yards/3 TDs), Puka Nacua (20/444/1), and Neil Pau’u (31/369/4). Freshman tight end Isaac Rex typically gets the call near the goal line, as three of his 13 total catches have gone for touchdowns.
The rushing attack is still no slouch for BYU, especially in keeping the offense on schedule. BYU ranks 28th in rushing success rate, staying ahead of the chains on more than 44% of runs. However, when it comes to big plays, the Provo Cougs aren’t typically explosive on their rushes. Continuing that trend will be important for the Pullman Cougs.
Tyler Allgeier is the workhouse out of the backfield, logging 136 runs for 675 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Hall also has the ability to make plays on the ground if the opportunity arises.
WSU’s defense has been at its best against the pass, ranking 39th in EPA/Pass. Still, the Pullman Cougs allow teams to stay ahead of the chains frequently when throwing, giving up a near-42% passing success rate (78th nationally). They are able to be more effective when it comes to expected points per pass because they create big plays—takeaways, crucial sacks, and important incompletions.
Washington State will need those big plays against BYU, which succeeds by staying on schedule through early-down runs and then hits medium—and—longer pass plays while the defense is left still worrying about the run. Stuffing runs at or behind the line on first or second down could go a long way to helping Wazzu get to the obvious passing downs where its defensive line can thrive and create havoc.
The BYU offense poses a big challenge and it's likely to put up big yardage. WSU will once again need to hope for the big moments that have sustained its defense during the team’s three-game winning streak.
When WSU has the ball...
Jayden de Laura seems to have turned a corner at quarterback for Washington State, finally putting up the explosive plays for which the Run and Shoot is known. His last two performances, perhaps the two best of his short career, came against passing defenses that were in the top 50 of EPA/pass prior to the game. BYU currently sits at 72nd in EPA/pass allowed and 90th in passing success rate allowed.
WSU’s recent passing success has also been paired with rushing success against poor run defenses—BYU offers yet another struggling run defense for Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh to exploit. The Provo Cougs rank 92nd in EPA/rush allowed and 89th in rushing success rate allowed.
BYU has also struggled mightily on third and fourth downs, where they allow a success rate of over 47% (105th). Keeping the pressure on and utilizing fourth down may ultimately pay dividends for Wazzu.
The Bottom Line
BYU’s offense will move the ball, and it hasn’t turned it over much this season. WSU’s defense has thrived on forcing turnovers and coming up with negative plays. If Wazzu is unable to create takeaways against a stingy BYU offense, it will need to play some bend-don’t-break defense and hope it can come up with a third down stop somewhere.
If WSU’s offense continues its trend from the last two games, which may be a hard ask with so many offensive coaches gone, then it should be able to exploit a suspect BYU defense. Punishing them on third down and extending drives will be key for Wazzu.
It should be another high-scoring, thrilling game. It’s also sure to be an emotional one for WSU. Will that propel the Pullman Cougs to victory, or be a deterrent? That’s the question, and that’s why no gambler should touch this one with a 10-foot-pole.