PULLMAN – Washington State gave itself a much-needed confidence boost in a cakewalk against Portland State.
But what else can be taken away from the one-sided affair?
WSU might have found an effective pace of offense, an efficient run/pass balance, a surefire No. 1 quarterback and a couple of reliable new players.
The Cougars might be bringing a short-handed defense into their Week 3 test, though.
USC is up next. On Saturday, the Cougars will get a better idea of where they stand.
First, let’s rewind what was learned from WSU’s rout of Portland State:
Up-tempo, WSU thrives
The Cougars couldn’t “catch a rhythm early,” coach Nick Rolovich said, so they tweaked their tempo.
On its fifth possession, WSU’s offense picked up the pace and got into a groove.
Pre-snap huddles became fewer and the freewheeling Cougs picked apart Portland State with a stream of electric plays – some bold and improvised, some just well-executed.
In less than 10 minutes, they flipped a 7-all tie into a 17-point advantage and wound up cruising to a 44-24 tune-up victory against the Football Championship Subdivision team.
WSU piled up 199 yards and three touchdowns on 16 plays across three second-quarter possessions that spanned a combined 4:15. That’s about 16 seconds per snap.
The Cougs ran the ball 10 times and took six intermediate-to-deep shots in the passing game in those three series. Just two plays went for less than 5 yards.
WSU’s crisp sequence seemed to fatigue and befuddle Portland State’s defense, and the Vikings’ offense suddenly was in too deep of a hole.
Portland State couldn’t predict WSU’s offense, which had struck a productive run/pass balance. Quarterback Jayden de Laura had an air of confidence about him and it felt as though the Cougars could do no wrong.
“I think Jayden plays good at that pace,” Rolovich said. “I think it kinda calms things down. … They executed it pretty well and I think it was very effective today.”
Rolovich also said he eliminated some pre-snap reads to relieve some of the pressure on de Laura and simplify the offense. That probably contributed to the Cougars’ relaxed demeanor in the second quarter.
The run-and-shoot went three-and-out twice in the first quarter against Portland State. The Cougs scored a touchdown on a short field, but afterward squandered a red-zone opportunity when de Laura forced a pass into a closed window and was picked.
Rolovich’s offense had an erratic start the previous week, too. WSU’s methodical approach wasn’t inoperative, but there was a certain offensive flow missing that the Cougars found Saturday.
At this new pace, it was clear they had moxie.
De Laura was feeling it. He dialed up fearless passes of 29 and 19 yards to Travell Harris, who wasn’t entirely open but came down with both well-placed balls anyway – the latter being a touchdown.
De Laura also capped the first of the three impressive drives with a shifty 10-yard touchdown run on a read option. He almost slipped while making a juke yet still shook off the defender before darting toward the end zone and laying out to score.
“I think he’s really settling in and there are some things that happen in a football game when you have a quarterback (like that),” Rolovich said. “He made some throws where I had to close my eyes … but he has a way of keeping defenses on their toes. I thought he was locked in.”
Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh combined for runs of 10, 12, 16, 16 and 17 yards during those four minutes in which WSU’s rushing and passing games complemented each other nicely.
WSU went 80 yards on seven plays in just 2:11 on its longest series of the second quarter – in terms of time and yardage.
WSU’s best drive the previous week, its only one ending with a touchdown, was a nine-play, 78-yard series that lasted 3:16. Other considerable drives – in which WSU entered scoring position – averaged out to 54 yards on 10 plays over about five minutes.
Depth chart could have holes vs. USC
At kickoff Saturday, the Cougars were already short a few key pieces in their secondary.
During the game, WSU’s defensive backfield sustained another blow – one of major significance.
Senior cornerback Jaylen Watson, one of the Cougs’ two best defensive players overall, appeared to land awkwardly while making a tackle early in the third quarter.
He did not return, and later could be spotted on the sideline with his left arm in a sling.
Rolovich didn’t provide an update on Watson’s status.
If they can’t regain health in the secondary, the Cougars might be in a tight spot this weekend when they take on a USC offense that airs it out and boasts strong, lengthy receivers.
Watson matches up well with anyone in the conference. The 6-foot-3, 204-pounder is an NFL draft prospect and one of the Pac-12’s most physically imposing DBs. Opposing quarterbacks have rarely thrown his way in his five games at WSU.
Watson originally signed with the Trojans in 2019 after two All-American juco seasons at Ventura College in California. But he never ended up enrolling at USC and went a year without playing at all. The Augusta, Georgia, native committed to the Cougs in June 2020.
Watson was held out of WSU’s game against USC last season for unspecified reasons.
He was joined on the sideline Saturday by the Cougars’ top two nickel cornerbacks – Armani Marsh and Armauni Archie – both of whom missed the game with unknown issues. Breakout backup safety Tanner Moku, who was leaned on in WSU’s Week 1 rotation, stood beside them, also wearing street clothes.
Corner Chris Jackson, a Michigan State transfer, missed his second consecutive game.
WSU shook up its secondary personnel in Week 2. Most notably, the Cougs shifted strong safety Daniel Isom to nickel.
Isom started the previous week but suffered an injury in the first quarter and did not return.
But he apparently bounced back quickly enough to get a firm grasp on a new position. Isom had a steady outing at nickel. He had a big hit to stuff a running play and logged a third-down pass deflection.
“He’s such a smart football player,” Rolovich said of Isom, a Pac-12 honorable mention pick in 2020. “He probably cross-trains his mind daily. He knows how things work together. Incredibly athletic, can probably play five DB positions for us. (Safeties and nickels) are in the same meeting room. The pieces probably fit because he’s in that meeting room and it’s important to him.”
Tyrone Hill Jr. played safety in Isom’s stead. Rolovich has said he’s expecting the grad transfer from Buffalo to contribute a great deal this year. Hill was still working through a minor injury and didn’t play the previous week.
Watson and senior Derrick Langford started at corner, and sophomore Chau Smith-Wade and Old Dominion transfer Kaleb Ford-Dement saw extended time in reserve roles.
WSU’s new-look secondary fared well overall. It didn’t have any costly breakdowns and helped the Cougs get off the field on third downs with single-coverage pass break-ups from Isom, Langford and Smith-Wade.
“I think starting the year with depth in that area was beneficial,” Rolovich said when asked about injuries in the secondary. “Getting guys in this game will serve us well as we head into Pac-12 play.”
The Cougars, ahead comfortably 37-10, subbed out most of their important defenders midway through the third quarter.
At that point, Portland State quarterback Davis Alexander was 15 of 31 for 157 yards.
WSU’s offensive line was without a senior presence as well. Center Brian Greene did not play after exiting with an injury in the first quarter of the Cougs’ loss to Utah State the previous weekend.
Sophomore Konner Gomness filled in admirably. Ma’ake Fifita, a sophomore from Snohomish, Washington, was used as a utility man and lined up at multiple positions. He mostly rotated with Cade Beresford at right guard.
“Kinda the Swiss Army knife for us,” Rolovich said of Fifita. “With Brian Greene not available, there were a lot of roles that Ma’ake could have played in this game. He’s incredibly valuable to us, and he’s had some tremendous improvement since spring.”
The Cougars’ offensive line rebounded from a shaky opener. It conceded two sacks and three negative runs out of 24 attempts from the tailbacks, who combined to average 5.8 yards per carry.
Grad transfer quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was also out Saturday as he recovers from an injury suffered on a sack in Week 1. Yet it’d be a surprise if de Laura is challenged for the spot now.
Several firsts for WSU
More newcomers and backups are making appearances – and sometimes, impacts – than might have been estimated before the season.
Edge-rusher Andrew Edson, a true freshman from Snoqualmie, Washington, recorded his second consecutive game with a fumble recovery. Safety Halid Djibril forced the ball out on a third-down run play during the Vikings’ first drive, and Edson was in the right place.
On the ensuing possession, Edson bullied past his blocker and registered his first career sack on third down.
Edson had been praised throughout fall camp for his work ethic, but it wasn’t certain he’d be this much of a factor early, considering WSU has three experienced players at the same position. Edson has developed into one of the Cougs’ first defenders off the bench.
Junior receiver Mitchell Quinn, who earned a scholarship in fall camp and worked his way onto the two-deep, made his first two catches as a Cougar – one for 15 yards and another for 14 two plays later on a six-play, 73-yard scoring drive in the second quarter.
Hill totaled a team-high six tackles – including a stalemating hit at the line of scrimmage on a blitz – in his first game in crimson and gray.
Senior middle linebacker Justus Rogers, playing his 45th game at WSU, made his first career interception late in the second quarter to set up a short field goal at the buzzer.
Defensive lineman Antonio Pule and Gomness made their first starts.
Third-string sophomore quarterback Victor Gabalis saw the field unexpectedly. He threw three straight incompletions early in the fourth quarter, and after Portland State scored to make it 37-17, de Laura trotted back in for another smooth possession to re-extend the lead.