At this point, it seems to me that just about every week is an exercise in learning something new about how bad this season might get for the Washington State Cougars.
I’ll readily admit that there’s a fair amount of confirmation bias involved with my conclusions at this point. I went into the season thinking the team probably wasn’t going to be very good — something I had already decided months before Nick Rolovich’s ill-fated vaccination announcement — and now that they actually aren’t very good, it makes it hard to talk myself into anything portending positive results in the future.
And because I also have reached the conclusion that Rolovich is in way over his head and unfit to lead the program, it also makes it difficult to take seriously anything he says.
Take, for example, the defense.
After the game, Rolovich said, “That was a hell of a performance by the defense. The ball’s coming out, they never quit when (Utah got) down to the goal line, trying to rip the ball out. ... They played great, I thought. They played good enough for us to win that game.”
I can see why someone — especially the coach — might say that; Utah only scored 17 offensive points in the game, and that certainly should be good enough to win. And I understand a coach’s desire to find positives, particularly when a season is already circling the drain — the players hear these comments, and an encouraging word can go a long way with them. I get that, and I don’t want to minimize that.
But since I am a fan and not a coach and therefore not at all concerned with how my thoughts will play in a locker room, here’s what I saw from the defense on Saturday: 254 yards allowed in the second half at 6.9 yards per play. That is decidedly not great, and if you’re not sure how not great that is, consider this: Last weekend, USC gained 259 yards and 6.3 yards per play in the second half.
Let’s be totally honest about why Utah didn’t score 38 in the second half like they did last year, or like USC did last week: The Utes kept royally screwing up before they could put the ball in the end zone.
It wasn’t because WSU was offering a lot of resistance — it was because the Utes ended their drives with lost fumbles three times and torpedoed another drive with a fumble that that they recovered, but that left them with a third and long (and resulted in them missing a chip-shot field goal):
Of course, that’s going to be the main point of contention when it comes to the diverging opinions on the defensive performance. And I do understand there are those who would say that results are all that matter, which technically is true — had we won the game, we’d be happy. We didn’t, so we’re sad. (Or indifferent, or whatever.) Results do matter.
Where I have an issue is when what happened on Saturday is portrayed as something to build on. A lot of people believe in the concept of “forced” turnovers, but there’s a mountain of data to suggest that turnovers — particularly fumbles — aren’t really “forced.” Yes, the defense has to do something to secure a turnover, but ultimately, control really rests in the hands of the offense.
For example: Armani Marsh gets a lot of credit for the hit at the goal line that dislodged the ball and resulted in a turnover. And he should! It was an awesome hit — shoulder right on the ball, just like you try to do. But ... how many running backs get hit like that and don’t fumble? Particularly at the goal line, where the ball is typically wrapped up pretty tight?
Fumbles like that are rare, which means they’re not really a repeatable skill, which means that interpreting that particular sequence of events as something to build on isn’t a great idea. More significant to me is that Utah gained 82 yards on the previous 5 plays to get to that point, including a 59-yard run. (It’s probably also worth noting that the running back ended up in the end zone after the hit, just minus the ball.)
You could say much the same for Utah’s other fumbles. Again, kudos to Travion Brown for knocking the ball out of Ja’Quindon Jackson’s hands in the red zone, but let’s be real about Jackson’s (lack of) ball security on the play and also remember that, (A) the fumble came after he had already gained six yards, (B) he was poised for even more, and (C) the ball could have easily just rolled out of bounds to allow Utah to retain possession.
In their three games prior to Saturday, Utah had fumbled the ball four times and WSU’s opponents had fumbled five times. And then the two teams combined to have seven on the ground in one game? Heck, two of Utah’s fumbles were just them straight up dropping the ball. There’s just nothing to suggest that WSU discovered a magical skill that they’ll be able to employ going forward.
Look: I’m not trying to crap on the defense here, even though it probably seems like it. I really am glad they were able to have some good results for their effort — those positive plays are something they can hang their hats on. I hope it fuels them to continue to work to get better.
But as a fan? I’m not holding my breath that anything has changed — and the way the game played out on Saturday just reinforced my belief in the downward trajectory of the program under Rolovich, and my utter lack of faith in his ability to lead a turnaround. The offense continues to be discouraging after another anemic second-half performance, and the QB at the helm was the man Rolovich anointed as his starter to begin the season.
At this point, we have to be wondering what, exactly, it’s going to take for this team to win another game. When a team makes as many mistakes as Utah did and you still lose by double digits?
What we liked: Outside receiver production
It’s been a while since we could look to the outside receivers as a potential strength of a WSU offense. And while it’s far too soon to make any proclamations about a philosophy shift — it’s possible that Saturday’s production was a combination of the game plan, opponent, and quarterback — it’s still awesome to see that position come to life.
De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie combined for 11 catches on 17 targets for 138 yards — more than half the team’s passing yards. That’s a potentially exciting development.
I’ve hoped for big things out of Ollie since he arrived; big-framed receivers can do a lot of damage if they learn to use their body right. He’s more than doubled his season total in receptions and yards in this one, so hopefully that’s just the beginning.
Stribling has been a bit of a revelation. His signing last year was a surprise; he was a 2020 recruit out of Hawaii who never landed anywhere and then showed up to sign with the Cougs on the early signing day. He was a low 3-star recruit out of Hawaii whose only other Power 5 offer — again, in 2020 — was Wake Forest.
He’s now second on the team in yards, but more than that, is just the way he looks on the field. It’s a hard thing to describe, but you’d never know he was a freshman just by watching him. He looks like he belongs in a way that few true freshmen do, and it appears that Rolovich and his staff have found a gem.
Who impressed: Ron Stone Jr.
We’ve been waiting (semi-)patiently for Ron Stone Jr. to deliver on the goods we’d been promised heading into the season. He finally delivered in a big way on Saturday.
Stone racked up 6 tackles, including 3 for a loss, against the Utes. He secured his first full sack of the season, and also forced a fumble — and, yes, this time I used “forced” — with a vicious backfield hit. Since WSU lost, I’m going to assume he won’t be the conference defensive player of the week, but he has a hell of a case.
“RJ’s a big part of not only our defense, but our team, who he is as a person,” Rolovich said after the game. “There’s no surprise that he has success, the way he works day in and day out. Just a wonderful member of this team, and a wonderful person as well.”
If you think Rolovich might be full of crap on that last part, here’s a video I took of Stone dancing with Craig’s niece, Iris, at the Coug on the day Craig got engaged.
What needs work: Jarrett Guarantano’s pocket presence
When the pocket was extraordinarily clean — as it was on the photo above — Jarrett Guarantano looked like a polished passer, making some big time throws. When it wasn’t extraordinarily clean ... he did not look like a polished passer.
In all, Guarantano suffered seven sacks. Typically, sacks are considered an offensive line stat, but much like the conventional wisdom on fumbles, I think that’s faulty: The quarterback has a lot of control over when the ball comes out, and if you watched the game on Saturday, there might have only been one or two of those sacks that we’d consider “no chancers.” The others came about because Guarantano both holds onto the ball too long and also lacks the escapability of Jayden de Laura.
He also had those three interceptions. He absolutely gets a pass on the intercepted screen — that was an absurd play by the defender — but the other two are almost certainly on him. And both were killers.
It’s pretty remarkable to see someone with as many starts under his belt as Guarantano struggle so badly with diagnosing a defense and getting rid of the ball. I know he worked hard in the offseason to prepare for this last shot of his career, but maybe this is just a skill that a QB has ... or doesn’t.
Either way, de Laura can’t come back fast enough.
D’oh. Maybe we’ll get some sort of cosmic payback for the mountains of Cal Bullshit accumulated over the past few years? That would be rich.