I’ve had a more difficult time composing this particular Monday After than I do most weeks. Typically, I’m looking for big picture narratives — ideas on where the team has been, where it’s going, etc. I’m a writer. I’m an English teacher. I like stories.
To that end, I have found this Washington State team to be particularly confounding. Six games into a 12-game regular season, I’m just not quite sure what to make of this squad.
Take, for example the defense.
It would be real easy to do this kind of analysis: 26, 24, 45, 17, 6, 24. The defense is improving! They looked utterly feckless against USC, but have rebounded to allow an average of 15.7 points over the past three games. That’s fantastic by the standard of most any defense.
But then we dig in a little bit and look at the numbers that underpin the results and it’s a little more murky. WSU gave up 6.36 yards per play to the Utes and 6.58 — a season worst — to the Beavers. But Utah fumbled the ball away three times to end promising drives, and recovered others that neutered drives with yardage losses; Oregon State suffered from a pair of red zone turnovers and saw three other drives end with 4th down stops. So it all worked out. Heck, Cal only averaged 4.3, but they also put together the kind of performance that usually results in more than 6 points, undone by 1-of-5 on 4th downs.
This is where I try to figure out what’s real and what’s not.
Yards per play isn’t the greatest catch all measure for a defense, but it’s a pretty decent one to get a quick and dirty look at how effective (or not effective) it was, considering that explosive plays are generally the most telling component of an offense performance. For context, if the team did what WSU did against Utah and OSU, they’d rank somewhere around 110th in FBS; even if you throw in Cal, that still works out to 5.7 ypp, which would rank in the bottom third.
So ... does this team have some sort of magical fumble forcing skill? Well, WSU has 11 forced fumbles on the season, which ranks second in the country. Awesome! But five of those came against Utah (two of the seven were unforced), meaning the Cougars are averaging just a hair over one forced fumble a game in their other five. Perfectly normal. Maybe the magical fumble forcing skill only works in Salt Lake City?
(Side note: You know who has been absolutely horrible at forcing fumbles? Georgia. The opponents of most dominant defense in the country have coughed it up three times all season.)
Does this team have some sort of fourth down defense elixir? They’ve allowed just 1-of-8 chances to be converted the last two games, and are 4-of-13 on the year — 17th nationally. Awesome! But ... they’ve faced more 4th down attempts than all but 12 teams in the country. Some of that is a function of the game state the last two weeks, but a lot of that also is a function of teams being in spots where they’re more likely to go for it: Plus field position, manageable distance ... which is due to giving up yardage.
Again, maybe they’ve got some sort of special fourth down skill. Maybe Jake Dickert calls the best defenses on fourth down, maybe the defense gets extra super focused on these critical plays. But WSU’s yards per play allowed in those games would suggest that their opponents would convert more than 1-of-8, and, year after year, national conversion rates usually hover around 50% at the median.
How different does the Utah game look if the Utes put it on the ground only once or twice, as you’d statistically expect? How different do the last two games look if Cal and Oregon State convert at least a couple more 4th downs, as you’d statistically expect?
Maybe it doesn’t look any different. But the margins on Saturday were thin enough that it’s not hard to see how the result could have flipped. Cal could have pretty easily made that one equally uncomfortable, and Utah could have blown us out.
Many of you are probably saying close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, dancing, etc. and the bottom line is that WSU got the job done. Very true! None of these things diminished my enjoyment of the game in the moment; I wasn’t sitting on my couch, sipping my beer, and shouting at nobody in particular, “YEAH BUT THIS IS ALL GOING TO INEVITABLY REGRESS!! WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE REGRESSION!!?!??!”
I could do that same exercise for the offense, too. The second-half explosion was totally awesome and extremely fun and also I have no idea what to make of it, as it was also completely out of character. Did something finally click? Was OSU just that inept? Did switching primary play callers make all the difference?
It just makes it hard to figure out exactly where this is all probably heading. Not that we ever can be certain, but I feel even more uncertain than usual. (And this is completely independent of the fact that the head coach might be relieved of his duties in a week.)
So, here are a couple of things I thiiiink are true that we can count on going forward as the time tries to find three wins over the final six games and qualify for a bowl:
The pass defense is legit. The Cougs held consecutive quarterbacks to less than 50% passing. That’s a pretty mind-blowing feat in the year 2021 no matter who you’re playing, given that offenses are designed to foster completions.
We’ve known all along how good Jaylen Watson is, but Derrick Langford — after getting picked on earlier in the year — has really steadied himself at the other corner. George Hicks III’s transformation at safety has been a revelation, Daniel Isom has been steady at the other safety, and Armani Marsh has been quite good in the nickel spot. (I don’t put much stock in his run struggles on Saturday, for what it’s worth — at his size, as a converted corner, run support against a run-heavy team is likely never going to be his strength.)
And then the pass rush! Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. have finally come alive, with some help from Willie Taylor III. As we talked about on our podcast, there’s a better than zero chance that the negative plays they’re generating at opportune times are short-circuiting otherwise promising drives from the opponent. I’m not sure I totally buy that yet as a sustainable strategy, but I think there’s some merit to the idea.
One more thing to note: WSU isn’t exactly going to face a murderer’s row of passing offenses over the final six games. The Cougars are well positioned for their particular opponents.
Jayden de Laura is rapidly improving. I talk a bunch more about de Laura below, so I won’t get too far into the weeds here. But there’s just this feeling when you watch him play that he’s aggressively flattening the learning curve. Because this is his second year, and he’s started the majority of the games over that time, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember that he’s made just eight starts in his career. Eight! He’s played in nine games overall and he’s missed significant portions of three of those. De Laura is still just getting started, and while I certainly don’t expect a linear improvement from him, I definitely expect more ups than downs the rest of the way. And that’s probably the most important development possible for the offense.
What we liked: Focus on mental health
Note: The following text discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or visit their website.
WSU joined a eight other Pac-12 schools — and more that 60 schools nationwide — in participating in College Football Mental Health Week, a venture spearheaded by the Hilinski’s Hope foundation, led by Kym and Mark Hilinski in honor of their son, Tyler, the former WSU quarterback who ended his life by suicide back in 2018.
WSU’s participation was signified most publicly by the green ribbon stickers on the back of the team’s helmets, but there also were a series of events hosted by the school during the week for players and coaches to address various aspects of mental health.
For obvious reasons, this is an issue that is near and dear to us as a fanbase, but it’s also become very personal to me, as well — over the past year, I finally addressed my own long-standing-but-long-ignored mental health challenges by seeking a diagnosis and treatment for what turned out to be a generalized anxiety disorder. It’s something that had led me to some pretty dark places at times over the years, and I’m much happier and healthier for having sought the help of professionals.
It’s a little scary to share that, but if sharing it helps someone else seek out the help they need, it’s worth it.
Given the context above, I was really happy to see that WSU chose to participate in this week. I also would love to see WSU take a much bigger role in advocating for mental health awareness.
After WSU announced its intention to participate, the athletic department didn’t seem to make much of a deal out of the week. The “social media promotion” that was promised ended up being just a few coach videos posted on Wednesday to Twitter and Facebook; and I wasn’t at the game on Saturday, but I have been told that there was an announcement about it prior to kickoff.
If you follow Hilinski’s Hope on social media, you know that numerous other schools did much, much more over the past seven days to publicly advocate for the mission of College Football Mental Health Week.
Perhaps there is much more going on behind the scenes at WSU to support players and coaches in their mental health; if so, shout it from the rooftops! Normalizing talking about it is a great first step to encouraging all Cougs — players and coaches and fans alike — to get the help they might need.
Let’s be a leader in this area.
Who impressed: Jayden de Laura
Finally! What a tremendous break out for the passing game, which had been — to be frank — bad. Before Saturday, the team had exceeded 300 yards passing against only FCS Portland State, and there were some numbers in there that we hadn’t seen regularly since the Paul Wulff era. Some of this was Jarrett Guarantano’s ineptitude, but most of it came with de Laura at the helm:
De Laura, of course, was responsible for Saturday. And I’ll be honest: I didn’t think he yet had this kind of a high volume/high ypa/high completion passing performance like this in him. To see him do it is very, very cool.
De Laura was absolutely dealing in the second half, particularly as WSU went back to the well over and over with its 5-wide set. He missed just three of his 18 throws after the break, and he had completions that went for 26, 55, 58, 16, and 20 yards. Some of that was the work of his receivers running with the ball ...
... but the QB has a lot to do with getting guys the ball in spaces where they can run with it. And he did that repeatedly.
It’s been fun to watch de Laura grow in confidence with each passing week. He’s certainly not error free — the interception at the end of the first half is about as bad of an interception as you’ll ever see — but he’s got an incredible belief in himself and his abilities that allows him to flush bad things that happen. He’s been susceptible at times to the temptation of hero ball, but I feel pretty good about the chances he outgrows that. Maybe he already has? He was locked in on Saturday as WSU rode his arm to victory.
I’m curious to see if this is a one-off or if this is sustainable. I’ve not really believed in de Laura as a guy who can carry the offense with his arm (yet), but I’ve been wrong thousands of times before. I’m also curious how much of an impact switching primary play callers will have. Craig Stutzmann is getting a lot of praise right now, but he also was the primary play caller for Cal. I think the jury’s still out a little on that one.
The best part of Saturday is just this: Now we know de Laura has it in him.
Liam Ryan (Pac-12 lineman of the week!) — Did you see the block he threw on Lincoln Victor’s TD? Ryan has struggled at times as a left tackle, but he’s always given everything he had to the team. Very cool to see him rewarded for that:
George Hicks III (Pac-12 defensive player of the week!) — Speaking of cool ... this guy switched positions in the offseason and now has a player of the week award to show for it.
What needs work: Max Borghi(?)
Is it time to have a little bit of an uncomfortable conversation about who the best running back on the roster is?
This would be a little more cut-and-dried if Borghi hadn’t had a nice second half, putting together gains of 9 and 13 yards and also scoring a 3-yard TD that would have gone for more. (Yes, I understand that’s not really how it works, but just go with me here.)
The first half, though, was suboptimal. Borghi was looking to bounce runs out to the edge just about every time he touched the ball and looked tentative approaching the hole. There’s a fine line between that and patience, and Borghi had been falling on the wrong side of it too regularly.
Deon McIntosh, meanwhile, has had great success with his funky upright running style. Normally long legged guys like him don’t play running back, but McIntosh has this incredible ability to absorb hits on those legs and stay on his feet. Just tremendous natural balance.
If you take out Borghi’s 64-yard scamper in the opener — yes, I realize that’s just a tad unfair, given that Borghi’s home run potential is part of the deal — they have gained virtually the same amount of yards (269 for McIntosh, 268 for Borghi) but Borghi has nine more carries. There’s a real case to be made that McIntosh is WSU’s most effective running back.
Maybe Borghi is still figuring out how to play through his injuries. He’s been dinged up far more than anyone would want to see. But he’s going to need to play more like what we saw in the second half if he wants to hold onto his status as the starting running back.
Up next! Stanford Cardinal
The Cardinal have been a little bit of an enigma this year. They started with an absolute dud of an opener against Kansas State, switching QBs midway through from senior Jack West to sophomore Tanner McKee. It looked like they found something, and they were right: Stanford beat then No. 14 USC (leading to Clay Helton’s firing) and Vanderbilt the next two weeks, and it looked like David Shaw’s program might have been undergoing a revival.
Then ... a loss at home to then No. 24 UCLA by 11.
Then ... a win at home over then-No. 3 Oregon in overtime!!
Then ... a loss on the road to No. 22 Arizona State by 18.
The loss to ASU probably was closer than it appears; the Cardinal traveled into Sun Devil territory a whole bunch, but in true Shaw fashion, they turned those forays into punts. Maybe on another day, they give the Sun Devils a run.
It sure makes it tough to know what to make out of Saturday’s matchup.
Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. PT from Pullman. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.