Utah State Football: First Look at the Washington State Cougars
The Aggies will head to the Palouse to take on Nick Rolovich’s Cougars in their season opener.
The Cougars had a down 2020, but are they on the way back up?
Utah State Football: First Looks at Non-Conference Opponents
The Utah State Aggies will take their first steps into the Blake Anderson era by heading to the Pacific Northwest for a date with the Washington State Cougars. When they do, they’ll take on a team that, much like the Aggies themselves, has plenty of potential excitement on the roster but a murky sense of how 2021 will actually play out. Both teams are looking for a strong rebound from forgettable COVID-plagued campaigns, both know how they want to attack on offense, and both would benefit from the boost that comes with starting 1-0.
Location: Pullman, Washington
Mascot: Butch T. Cougar
2020 Record: 1-3 (1-3 Pac-12)
Head Coach: Nick Rolovich (second year; 1-3 at Washington State, 29-30 overall). After engineering a revival at Hawaii which included three bowl appearances in four years, Rolovich brought the run-and-shoot offense to Wazzu and, well, faced a fair number of challenges from the get-go. The Cougars only got to play four games in 2020 and were wildly uneven when they did see the field: They finished seventh in the Pac-12 by offensive yards per play but gave the ball away eight times, and then they also allowed 6.69 yards per play and 38.5 points per game, both of which were surpassed only by hapless Arizona.
A full off-season should go a long way toward helping them get closer to where they wanted to be this time last year and continuity on the field and the sidelines will help. Offensive coordinator Brian Smith worked with Rolovich on the islands, too, while defensive coordinator Jake Dickert has a strong track record of development from his time defending Rolovich and others at Wyoming (not to mention North Dakota State and South Dakota State before that).
RB Max Borghi
Long one of the most prolific pass-catching runners in the country, it’s still something of a mystery how Borghi’s established skills will translate from Mike Leach’s Air Raid to Rolovich’s run-and-shoot because injuries hampered him throughout the 2020 season. Lest you think he’s a one-trick pony, though, keep in mind that Borghi sports a career average of 6.1 yards per carry and, in his lone 2020 appearance, he racked up 95 yards on ten carries against Utah. He’ll bring the necessary balance to keep opposing defenses honest one way or another.
OT Abraham Lucas
The Cougars still have a quarterback quandry to sift through, but at least they can count on some of the best protection anywhere on the west coast. Lucas could have been an NFL Draft pick in the spring if he’d wanted it, but the three-time all-Pac-12 second team tackle decided to come back for one last season. At 6-foot-7 and 319 pounds, he’ll be a tough assignment for whichever Utah State edge rusher lines up opposite him.
LB Jahad Woods
Woods is one of the most seasoned veterans anywhere in the Pac-12, with 40 career starts under his belt dating back to 2017. He’s the kind of defensive athlete who can do a little bit of everything, though he’s perhaps most well known for the 141 tackles he picked up in 2019, and defensive coordinator Dickert is likely counting on the super senior to do so one more time. He finished 2020 with 31 total tackles, a team-high 4.5 tackles for loss, a sack and an interception.
S Daniel Isom
Any rebound that Washington State has in 2021 will depend on the defense picking up a lot of slack and Isom could be key to doing just that. He made ten combined starts across 2019 and 2020 at both free and strong safety and, right now, looks entrenched at the latter position. Last year, Isom led the Cougars with 32 total tackles.
WR Renard Bell
A strong run-and-shoot depends on a legion of strong pass catchers and Bell seemed to take to the new offensive system with aplomb in 2020. He and other slot receivers accounted for nearly three quarters of Wazzu’s total catches last fall and though the big-play element didn’t get fully unearthed, Bell led the Cougars with 33 catches for 337 yards and two touchdowns.
Washington State ranked 16th by offensive SP+ at the end of 2020 and projects to rank 12th by the same metric ahead of the 2021 season, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some pressing questions that could keep them from making good. Chief among them is what Rolovich will do at quarterback: Incumbent Jayden de Laura started all of last season as a true freshman, but he also missed the entirety of spring ball after being suspended for driving under the influence. He could lose QB1 responsibilities to either Jarret Guarantano, who transferred in from Tennessee, or Cammon Cooper, who’s had the benefit of learning the system as a backup.
Things are at least a little rosier elsewhere on the offense. Losing Borghi gave Deon McIntosh an opportunity to establish himself and he responded by averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Bell and Travell Harris give the Cougars some established and dangerous options in the slot, too, and while losing Jamire Calvin to the transfer portal hurts, others like Calvin Jackson Jr., Lincoln Victor, and Oklahoma State transfer CJ Moore will be prepared to step up and give Wazzu some choices on the outside.
To put it simply, Wazzu was rough on defense last season. Not only did the Cougars finish 108th by defensive SP+, ESPN’s Bill Connelly noted in his Pac-12 North preview that they also finished 117th in defensive success rate and 112th in points allowed per drive. The good news? Nearly everyone is back to make things right.
Woods and Isom are the headliners, but there are seven projected starters back for 2021 and more significant contributors preparing to step up to a larger role. The defensive line may not have an all-conference performer on paper, for instance, but defensive ends Ron Stone Jr. and Brendan Jackson have both flashed the ability to rush the passer. Woods is joined at linebacker by Justus Rogers, who has appeared in 43 career games and started 21 himself, while Isom and Jaylen Watson keep the secondary from being a total mystery.
Considering that both Utah State and Washington State appear to be more set on offense than defense, this look like a game on paper that’s likely to turn into a shootout. You can feel okay about the Aggies’ chances to disrupt up front, but the defense will have to prove they can keep up with Wazzu’s receivers in the slot and take advantage of the Cougars’ current questions in the defensive backfield.
Given that Utah State’s current wide receiver unit is long on experience and short on overall production, that latter prospect could be the culprit that holds the Aggies back from a mildly surprising upset. Washington State 34, Utah State 21