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NCAA Football: Utah State at Washington State

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The Monday After: Not your run-of-the-mill upset

It’s impossible to think about WSU’s loss to Utah State without considering the larger context.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

In the moments immediately following Washington State’s stunning 26-23 loss to Utah State on Saturday night, the Pac-12 Networks cameras caught WSU right tackle Abraham Lucas leaving the field.

He was running toward the tunnel — not quite sprinting, but it certainly was something faster than a jog. He had an unusual look on his face, even given the way the game ended; players generally will mill about the field, exchanging handshakes and hugs, or simply dejectedly trudge back to the locker room. But Big Abe?

He looked practically homicidal.

Maybe WSU’s hulking right tackle was scooting out of there so fast because he actually was afraid he might kill someone. Or maybe he just needed to get somewhere out of sight so he could take out his frustrations on a chair or a locker or something.

Whatever it was, it was wholly justifiable in the aftermath of a debacle of a game that laid bare what a circus show the program has become under Nick Rolovich after just five games.

Against the backdrop of constant questions and speculation about his vaccination status — which he has avoided answering — in the face of a state mandate, Rolovich was equally coy about who would start at QB. He said it was a dead heat, and he insisted he wasn’t doing it to play mind games with anyone. Friday night, word started to get around that Rolovich had selected Jarrett Guarantano, a fact that was confirmed Saturday morning.

It was a puzzling decision on its face — if it truly was that close, why wouldn’t you go with the guy with the higher upside and more years to play? The reasons behind picking Guarantano that were reported by Jamey Vinnick didn’t make any sense, and it only got more confusing from there when it was reported that the plan was to redshirt de Laura.

As bizarre as all that was, by 8 p.m. I was excited to see Guarantano. Mostly because I was just excited that the team was going to play a game, but also ... maybe he’d be great! And if he was, it would be a very cool redemption story.

Then he started to play. And he was quite bad. In 13 pass attempts, he completed 8 for just 56 yards. Only two passes went for gains of greater than 10 yards, and one of those receptions required a circus catch from Calvin Jackson Jr. because the throw was well behind him.

NCAA Football: Utah State at Washington State
What a ridiculous catch from Calvin Jackson Jr.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Guarantano’s final play — on the team’s fourth drive — was a sack in the end zone in which he held onto the ball for too long and moved himself into the waiting arms of a defender.

So, in came de Laura, who was clearly hell bent on proving to everyone what a terrible decision they had made. Sometimes that was good (scrambling away from pressure), sometimes it wasn’t so good (misfiring on numerous deep shots), but — thanks to some fortuitous field position set up by takeaways — it was mostly effective, as WSU seemed to be cresting toward a walk-away win at the end of the third quarter.

Then ... the package. You know the one.

Here’s how Rolovich explained it today. You can watch his entire response, but you really only need to watch the first 10 seconds:

“Hoping to get it on film.”

Tired: Scoring an easy touchdown to seal the game.

WIRED: Bringing on your 3rd string quarterback and three running backs so that Oregon State has to spend 15 minutes of a practice preparing for a weird (but not that weird) formation a couple of months from now while telegraphing your plays to the opponent currently lining up across from you.

If there’s one thing I know about head football coaches, it’s that they generally think they’re the smartest guys in any room, which often leads to them being too clever by half. This was a perfect example of Coach Brain.

As Rolovich himself is fond of saying: Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

Of course, you know what happened from there. The team fell apart, continuing a disturbing trend under Rolovich of second half collapses in which WSU’s coaching deficiencies become exposed.

Rolovich put his offense in a bad spot by playing dumb games with his quarterbacks leading up to the game, then compounded it with his in-game decisions, which included giving the ball to Max Borghi exactly 11 times.

Eleven times! This was supposed to be the offense that showcased him!

A fan might rightly point out that nearly half of Borghi’s carries were negative plays, but that doesn’t really help. If an experienced offensive line was supposed to be a strength of this team, why on earth couldn’t it get any kind of push against a Mountain West unit that was abjectly terrible in 2020? Either they’re not as good as many people thought or they’ve been very poorly coached, and neither is a good sign going forward.

*Side note: Rolovich has taken a lot of stick for that 3-and-out in the 4th. Maybe the passing plays he called were bad passing plays, but I don’t have a problem with calling passes in that spot. Running plays had been ineffective and they were not in a position, with more than 5 minutes to play, to just hand the ball off three times. They needed a couple of first downs. Passing was probably the way to get there.

The defense, meanwhile, folded at the worst possible time — again. Fans have a lot of hope for defensive coordinator Jake Dickert, but the bizarre line change-type substitutions left me scratching my head. Was he trying to get lots of guys playing time? Was he expecting a break-neck pace from the Aggies that never materialized? Whatever it was, it’s hard to imagine the constant shuffling of personnel helped down the stretch.

Taken in total — the vaccine debacle (which Rolovich continues to insist isn’t a distraction), the quarterback decision (which was so clearly and obviously the wrong one, something the players very likely knew before the game ever started), the failure of the coaching staff strategically during the game — one has to wonder what the state of the team is at the moment.

That’s what got me about the look on Lucas’ face after the game. Maybe I’m overreaching here by playing Body Language Psychologist, but that wasn’t the look of someone who just lost a game in heartbreaking fashion; that was the look of someone who just lost a game in heartbreaking fashion WITH A LOT OF THOUGHTS about how that just happened. And not good thoughts.

The thing about the games Rolovich is playing — and by the way, he’s still saying QB is undecided for this weekend, although de Laura is ahead — is that you can get away with it if you’re winning. If you’re Mike Leach, you can stump for Donald Trump and you can tell silly stories about using coupons on dates for the 43rd time and you can throw your offensive line under the bus after a particularly putrid performance because we’ll all hold our noses regarding the things that we find personally distasteful and enjoy the fact that the wins outnumber the losses.

Nick Rolovich has none of that equity and seems completely oblivious to that fact. The immortal Crash Davis said it best:

I’m not even that mad about the game result, to be honest. Most of you probably know I already thought the team wasn’t going to win very many games, and if they now only win two or three instead of four, is it really all that different? Not to me.

The hardest part is that I feel like we’re watching the frittering away of the Leach years in real time. Because of who we are, this is part of the life cycle of our program, but it still absolutely sucks to witness.


What We Liked!

PULLMAN, WA - SEPTEMBER 4: Washington State wide receiver Mitchell Quinn (15) fires up the crowd during the fourth quarter of a non-conference matchup between the Utah State Aggies and the Washington State Cougars on September 4, 2021, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, WA. Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Take a bow, students of Washington State! The atmosphere was lit (do the kids still say that??), and that was largely because of you, showing out at Martin Stadium for the first time since 2019 — and probably for the first time ever for many of those students. Such a beautiful sight.

Please come back on Saturday?


Who Impressed?

PULLMAN, WA - SEPTEMBER 4: Washington State wide receiver Donovan Ollie (6) smiles during the fourth quarter of a non-conference matchup between the Utah State Aggies and the Washington State Cougars on September 4, 2021, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, WA.
Donovan Ollie
Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Months ago, I was on an Oregon podcast talking about the receivers, and I predicted that Donovan Ollie — with just one catch in 2020 — would secure a starting spot in 2021. I also said that CJ Moore would be a lock for the outside receiver spot on the other side, but hey ... I’m going to take this win, especially since Ollie had a great touchdown catch in which he bullied a smaller DB on his way to the end zone!

Ollie only had two catches for 28 yards, but I liked the promise he showed. Here’s to hoping the quarterbacks can get their accuracy issues sorted out so he can catch some more passes.

Honorable Mention: Max Borghi, Jaylen Watson, Tanner Moku, Jahad Woods.


What Needs Work

On the field, by far the most concerning development was the ineffectiveness of the offensive line. The defensive line wasn’t very good, either, but I didn’t have much of an expectation there — at least on the interior.

But the offensive line was supposed to be experienced and supposed to be a strength. Leach recruited five or six of those guys every year; surely there are five competent players? Not from the looks of it on Saturday. I’m not enough of a football scholar to pinpoint what went wrong, but talent should have won out. It did not.

If those guys don’t get it straightened out, we are really, really screwed.

Dishonorable mention: Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. ... zero sacks? For real?


Up Next

Portland State. I have no insight into the Vikings, other than someone asked a question at Rolovich’s press conference about PSU running a weird defense. Whatever. That’s about all I care to learn, tbh.

As bad as this was, it’s not like we could lose to an FCS team, amirite??

The game kicks off at 3 p.m. PT from Pullman and will be broadcast on Pac-12 Network.

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