Aggies start the season at home against Rolo’s Cougs
A crapshoot game if there ever was one
Utah State sets foot into the 2020 season by hosting the Washington State Cougars. While newly minted Cougar head coach Nick Rolovich doesn’t have the cachet or reputation of departed head coach Mike Leach, it would be a mistake for the Aggies to write off Wazzou’s offense. The game is set for September 3rd with TV rights yet to be announced.
Location: Pullman, WA
Mascot: Butch T. Cougar
2018 Record: 6-7
Head Coach: Nick Rolovich (Overall 28-27). As a former player and head coach of the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors, Nick Rolovich saw his share of ups and downs. As a player, he had a poor 2000 season followed by a very good 2001 season as the team’s starting quarterback.
After rising through the coaching ranks, Rolovich earned the privilege of being the Warriors’ head coach starting with the 2016 season. Though his first two years on the job resulted in shaky 7-7 and 3-9 campaigns, the team cemented an explosive and entertaining offense en route to 8-6 and 10-5 records the following two seasons. Before departing for the frozen tundra of Pullman, Rolovich’s career in Honolulu culminated in a wacky and wonderful Hawaii bowl win against BYU.
On paper, Rolovich is the right hire for Wazzou. He’s employing the run-and-shoot offense, which is similar to the air raid that Mike Leach employed so successfully in the Pac-12. With his own offensive background and system in tow, it would appear to even be a great situation. Nonetheless, Rolovich apes Leach’s own liabilities in overall poor defensive tradition and scheme. If Wazzou does more of the same with Rolovich, it may initially put a ceiling on what the coach can accomplish in 2020 with key missing players.
Quick Series Snapshot: WSU leads 2-1
The Aggies and the Cougars haven’t met on the gridiron since 1961, Merlin Olsen‘s final collegiate season. Utah State traveled to Spokane and bruised the Cougars 34-14. The previous two games in the series saw Wazzou dominate the Ags both times.
Washington State Cougars, 2019 Season:
This season will go down for many Coug fans as a bitter pill to swallow. The Cougs got off to a hot 3-0 start, albeit against inferior competition. After winning a close one against the Houston Cougars, Wazzou’s scoring offense had amassed 148 points in just three games. With winnable games against UCLA, Colorado, and Arizona State on the horizon, it looked like another potential North division championship was coming for the Cougs.
Chip Kelly and UCLA had other plans. In what was certainly one of the most bizarre and wild college football games ever played, Cougar QB Anthony Gordon threw nine touchdowns and 570 yards against two interceptions… and lost at home to a then winless Bruins team. The Cougs went on to lose to Utah and Arizona State and diminish any sort of accomplishment they had the first three weeks of the season.
After blowing another close game to Oregon, the Cougs shocked everyone with a dominant win over the Stanford Cardinal and delighted their fans with a squeaker win over Oregon State. Unfortunately, the regular season ended with another loss to the Washington Huskies, bringing their current Apple Cup losing streak to seven.
As a final parting gift to the fanbase, Mike Leach’s last game with the Cougars resulted in an underwhelming and sloppy 31-21 loss to a strong Air Force team in their bowl game. Leach moved on to Mississippi State, prolific QB Gordon graduated, and Rolovich took the head coaching reins shortly after that.
Offense: With the departure of Anthony Gordon at QB, the Cougs will have a QB competition on their hands. Unfortunately, due to the Coronavirus outbreak, Wazzou didn’t get a single Spring practice session this year. The apparent front-runners for the position are RS SO Cammon Cooper and RS FR Gunner Cruz. Neither QB has appeared in a game.
Wazzou is in much better shape at wide receiver. Though losing some of their top receivers from 2019 in Dezmon Patmon and Brandon Arconado, the Cougs return explosive targets in JR Travell Harris, SR Renard Bell, and SR Davontavean Martin. All of these players have significant game experience. When you add up their numbers with the fourth returning receiver for Wazzou, their numbers amount to a strong 154 catches, 1,796 yards and 16 touchdowns from 2019. They’ll help carry the load for the inexperienced QB and make his life much easier.
Though not the featured aspect of the offense by any stretch, the Cougs will still have some credible weapons at RB. JR Max Borghi will look to build on a successful 2019 season and reassert himself as the starter. He ran a solid 817 yards on 127 attempts and garnered 11 touchdowns. RS SR Deon McIntonsh will also look to play a bigger role in 2020 and back up Borghi. Most of the RBs the Cougs have at their disposal are inexperienced, but a few of them have great size.
Defense: The Cougs have a few returning starters on a defense that can stand to improve as a unit from last season. SR LB Jahad Woods made a huge impact in the backfield, tallying up an impressive 141 tackles in 2019. SR Safety Skyler Thomas will look to improve in 2020 and help anchor a secondary that gave up 267 passing yards per game in 2019, a dismal 114th NCAA ranking. His task will be harder without the presence of SR Safety Bryce Beekman, who tragically passed away earlier this year.”
On the defensive line, Wazzou has just one senior in Will Rodgers III. Though he put up strong numbers in 2019 with 27 total tackles and four sacks, he’ll need to step up and lead a unit that consists of mostly underclassmen. The Cougars’ run defense was not stellar last year, allowing 185.5 yards per game. Though it’s reasonable to expect an improvement, this unit still has some of its work cut out for it if the secondary doesn’t get better.
Final Thoughts and Game Prediction
It’s extremely typical for first games of the season to be sloppy and penalty ridden affairs. It takes time for team chemistry to coalesce into meaningful game-time production. When it comes right down to it, the season opener for USU is going to be extremely ugly across the board.
The Aggies are breaking in a new, albeit not inexperienced QB in Henry Colombi. They have a new offensive coordinator to boot, which almost inevitably makes losing several top receiving targets from last season like TE Caleb Repp and WR Siaosi Mariner an even harder burden to bear. Without those targets, receivers like SR Jordan Nathan, SR Savon Scarver, and SR Taylor Compton all need to take a meaningful step forward and exhibit leadership for the passing game to be a threat. Losing your top signal caller in Jordan Love to the NFL draft has its drawbacks.
For the Cougars, they also have a large set of challenges to overcome. Not only will they have a deeply inexperienced QB taking the reins of their newly installed run-and-shoot offense, but their first start will also be on the road. There’s no telling how Wazzou’s signal-caller is going to react in that environment until the chips fall. Without the benefit of any Spring practices at all, developing chemistry is a tough ask, even for the most assured athlete. If Wazzou’s traditionally strong offensive line doesn’t protect their passer, USU’s re-schemed 3-4-4 defense could cause major problems to whomever wins the starting job.
When it comes down to it, this game is most likely going to be a shootout. The Cougs are traditionally pass happy and light on the run, but USU’s secondary has much to prove after a mediocre 2019 season. On the flip side, Wazzou’s defensive culture is historically weak and last season was no exception. Against a new coaching staff and defensive philosophy change, USU should be able to gain significant yards on the ground and help gather confidence for an offensive line that has yet to show it can consistently bowl over its opposition.
Whoever possesses the ball last is going to win this high-scoring, penalty-ridden, and mistake-filled game.
Final Prediction- Utah State 35, Washington State 34