In a remarkably efficient “achievement” unparalleled in perhaps the entire history of Washington State football, it’s taken Nick Rolovich all of seven games to completely burn to the ground everything Mike Leach built in his eight successful years.
The tear down almost certainly was complete sometime before Saturday, but when the Cougars collapsed (again) by fecklessly surrendering 45 unanswered points to USC, it was the final manifestation of a reality that is undeniable at this point.
The Nick Rolovich era already is over.
However many more games Rolovich coaches is just a mere side note to this reality — before his second season even hits the halfway point, he’s already a dead man walking.
We know this, because we’ve seen it before.
There have been a lot of comparisons to Paul Wulff’s tenure thrown around, and while some aspects of the comparisons don’t hold any water, this part absolutely does: When a coach and his staff are so obviously out of their depth and so clearly over their skis — as Wulff was then and Rolovich is now — the best thing you can do is resist manufacturing excuses that result in ill-advised “patience.” Just call it what it is, and start immediately preparing for the inevitable end.
Because when you know ... you know.
As you surely realize by now, the loss to USC was the third time in five Pac-12 games that Rolovich’s Cougars have had a double-digit lead, only to lose by multiple touchdowns. In each of those games — which also includes losses to Oregon and Utah — WSU gave up at least four second-half touchdowns. The Utes and Trojans each dropped 38 points on the Cougs after the break.
“I’ll compare it to UFC,” senior offensive lineman Abe Lucas said. “I think we’re a team that, we have a good initial punch, but not really a chin. And we don’t have a lot of stamina for later on. You come out in a fight, you hit them a couple of times and it’s great and everything’s ‘rah rah,’ and then you get hit and you just fold. That’s like the mark of a sad fighter.
“It’s not even that energy and passion leaves, I think that in that game, we were a 30-minute football team. We came out swinging, we had them on the ropes, had them where we wanted them. You know, USC’s a good team, so we came out and tried to put them away as best we could, and then next half it was just gone.
“There’s lots of, I guess, reasons for that.”
The multi-TD collapses should sound alarm bells in the same way 66-3, 63-14, 66-13, 69-0, and 58-0 should have. No matter what extenuating circumstances you think there are, these are the kinds of results that need no further explanation beyond “these guys can’t actually coach at this level.” We should be honest with ourselves now in a way that we weren’t in 2008 or 2009, because there’s enough of a track record already to see where this is going to end up.
But even if we only look at Saturday, there are any number of head scratching decisions that even a casual fan could take issue with:
- Going to a sprint option for the third time in two games when you’re going for it on 4th-and-goal? The decision to go for it was a good one — WSU was always going to need that touchdown — but the lack of imagination there was high school and/or video game play calling, and USC was (predictably) all over it.
- Using Jayden de Laura for a quick kick on 4th down? I understood that WSU was sort of in no-man’s land there on 4th-and-9 from USC’s 35, but ... didn’t you sign a scholarship punter to do that? Exactly what advantage did you gain from playing it that way? Prime example of Coach Brain.
- Then there was the bomb into the end zone by USC to end the half. How on earth can that happen, particularly coming out of a timeout? It’s 4th-and-9, the top priority should be to prevent a TD, and somehow WSU got caught in a defense that allowed the middle linebacker to have to run with a wide receiver down the center of the field. That’s a total failure of coaching.
Perhaps most egregious was the yo-yoing of de Laura and Victor Gabalis in the third quarter.
The starter took a knock on the final play of the first half — a scramble into the teeth of USC’s defense with about 30 seconds left — leading Rolovich to turn in the third quarter to the backup who, surprisingly, was not Jarrett Guarantano or Cammon Cooper or even true freshman Xavier Ward ... but the walk-on. Walk-ons serve a vital role in a program, but it’s also usually extremely bad news when one is playing the most vital position on the team, and that’s exactly how it worked out.
But wait! After Gabalis led three drives that somehow amassed minus-2 yards, in came de Laura because ... he was suddenly healthy? He was able to talk his way back in? Things got so bad so quickly (WSU had fallen behind 28-14) that the team was desperate? Your guess is as good as mine, because it doesn’t seem like anyone has asked Rolovich for a firm answer on his reasoning.
It took all of one throw from de Laura to see that he should not, in fact, have come back in the game; his heave down the sideline was woefully underthrown for an interception. Six plays later, the Trojans were in the end zone to extend their lead to 35-14, which surely would signal the end of de Laura’s day ... actually, no, he trotted back out for two more badly off-target throws and then his day was over as he limped off the field to let Gabalis come on for third down. And another incompletion.
It was absolute insanity — borderline coaching malpractice, really.
Of course, this is just one game, albeit one that is remarkably similar to those that have come before it. If we zoom out a little further, more problems come into the picture — problems that are not going away.
From an on-the-field perspective, it’s impossible to separate the de Laura/Gabalis mess from the original decision to start Guarantano in the opener instead of de Laura. That was the kind of blunder that is so remarkable that it makes you question if the coach — who is a former QB himself and a supposed offensive guru — has any clue at all about the most important position on the field. He’s now played four different QBs; the only one who hasn’t seen the field is the true freshman, Ward.
Off the field, Rolovich’s vaccination status remains a dark cloud that’s following the program everywhere it goes, and while I certainly have my own (very strong) personal feelings about the morality of his decision and what it says about one human’s empathy for another, the bigger issue — from the perspective of the health of the program — is the manner in which he has handled it from the start. Even if he gets the shot(s) in the next couple of weeks such that he is fully vaccinated by the governor’s Oct. 18 deadline, we still will have a coach who has shown a stunning lack of judgment, leadership skills, and communication savvy — all of which are required from the head coach of an FBS program.
Perhaps it’s only a coincidence, but WSU has secured just one verbal commitment to the 2022 class since Rolovich announced in late July that he wouldn’t be vaccinated — and that was from someone whose only other offers were from UNLV and Utah State. The class currently ranks 11th in the conference (via 247Sports), and the Cougs’ eight commits are tied for second-fewest in the league. WSU did have a slew of official visitors on Saturday, so maybe there is an avalanche of commitments coming. But at the moment, it’s hard not to draw a pretty direct line from one to the other.
There’s really only one remedy for this. It’s not going to magically get better. All signs point to WSU entering a death spiral, and when that happens, the only way to pull out is to change coaches as quickly as possible.
Smart organizations recognize the sunk cost and cut bait when they know they’ve gotten it wrong — I’m reminded of Colorado firing John Embree after two seasons of embarrassing results to hire Mike MacIntyre, and of the Seattle Seahawks firing Jim Mora after just one season to go hire Pete Carroll. Those two moves had pretty different outcomes, so obviously a move is no guarantee of success, but it at least gives you the opportunity to turn it around. And the buyout is more university friendly than you probably think — WSU would owe Rolovich just $3.6 million (60% of his base $2 million salary for the three remaining years on his contract). No matter what you believe about WSU’s financial situation, that’s a number any Power 5 program can make happen.
Maybe this problem takes care of itself on Oct. 18, and Rolovich saves WSU a bunch of dollars. I doubt that will happen, but I guess you never know.
For whatever reason, WSU athletics director Pat Chun got this hire wrong. Maybe COVID sabotaged what would have otherwise been a successful tenure for Rolovich; maybe COVID just accelerated what would have been the inevitable end. We’ll never know.
What we do know is where we’re at now, and something has to be done. Failure to act will just prolong the problem and dig the hole deeper.
What we liked: Jayden de Laura’s command
At times, it can appear that de Laura is simply winging it as he runs around the field, making the most of his athleticism. On Saturday, we saw something that I’m not sure we’ve seen all that often from him: Command of the offense.
He was directing traffic, checking to plays at the line, setting pass protection, and making patient reads. The numbers weren’t eye-popping — 117 yards on 10-of-16 passing with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions — but the offense was humming in its first three drives, and that was largely due to de Laura. Heck, he would have had three touchdown passes in the first half if a wet ball wouldn’t have squirted through Calvin Jackson Jr.’s hands.
It’s unclear if he’s going to play this weekend against Utah, and it’s equally unclear how effective he’ll be if he does. Mobility is a massive part of his game, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll be himself with a bulky knee brace. Here’s to hoping things are better than they appeared and that he’s a fast healer.
Who impressed: Andrew Edson
The true freshman edge rusher is putting together a nice little season already, having a huge game against the Trojans. He racked up three tackles for loss including the team’s only sack, and he now leads the team with a pair of sacks as the much ballyhooed combo of Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson has combined for just one.
Edson committed early to the 2021 class as a middling three-star prospect out of Mt. Si High School with only a slew of Group of 5 offers. It looks like the Cougs might have gotten a real steal.
What needs work: WSU’s mask enforcement
Whether masks are actually needed outdoors to prevent the spread of COVID is a matter of some debate, but what’s not a matter of debate is that WSU announced a that wearing a mask was a condition of watching the game.
There was absolutely no enforcement whatsoever. If you’re going to have a policy, have the fortitude to see it through, WSU.
Up next! Utah Utes
The Utes are reeling, having lost two consecutive games — first to BYU in the Holy War and then to San Diego State (in triple overtime!). Both were on the road, though, and Utah is now returning to the friendly confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium to host the Cougars.
There was a time under Mike Leach when it seemed like the Utes couldn’t beat the Cougars, as WSU won four consecutive games from 2013 to 2018. But the last two games have been decidedly different, including last year’s debacle.
The Utes have quarterback issues of their own, as Charlie Brewer — who transferred from Baylor and started all three games — has now left the team after being benched and demoted against the Aztecs. Maybe that plays out to the Cougars’ favor!
Stay tuned for who WSU trots out there. Would you be surprised by any of the four guys who have already seen time this year?
Kickoff is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. PT on Pac-12 Network.