As many have noted, Washington State’s game against USC last week marked the fourth time in Nick Rolovich’s seven-game coaching tenure the Cougars had lost despite a lead of at least 12. points at some point in the game.
Today will mark another reminder of this.
The Cougars (1-2, 0-1) face Utah (1-2, 0-0) at 11:30 am Pacific (Pac-12 Network) in a Pac-12 football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, where the most pronounced of those four meltdowns took place in the 2020 season finale.
Washington State led 28-7 with 20 minutes left before allowing 38 straight runs and turnovers on their last four possessions. The result was a 45-28 loss to cap a season 1-3.
In other words, a win in this one could kill a few Cougar demons.
“There was a time in this game, according to ESPN, I think we were 94.6 (percent) to win this game, and we didn’t,” Rolovich said earlier this week, referring to the network’s probability of winning index.
He said he was talking about “finishing” since that game in December.
“Finishing your reps, finishing your off-season training, your run – that was one of the goals of the offseason,” he said. “It will be nice to have a chance to go back there and clear that out of the memory banks.”
The context is different this time.
Due to injuries and coronavirus concerns in 2020, the Cougars boarded their plane to Salt Lake City with 53 stock players, exactly the number the Pac-12 was asking for at a minimum for participation. If necessary, they were ready to play with 51 or 52. As the game progressed, the situation got dire in some positions.
“I don’t think we have another D tackle that could play,” Rolovich said afterwards. “I’m not sure we have another safety that could play.”
The Cougars have apparently avoided virus issues lately, and the NCAA’s decision to give 2020 seniors an extra year of eligibility has bolstered the depth of many teams.
Yet the Coug’s losses continue. They lost a 12-point lead in a season-opening loss to Utah State, and they took a 14-point advantage that easily could have been 21 last week against USC before dropping 45. -14.
A key factor that day was an unexplained leg injury that sidelined second-year quarterback Jayden from Laura for most of the second half. He also suffered from a late knee injury during the Utah debacle last year.
De Laura’s status this week is unknown. Rolovich, who shut down media practices once the season began, said midweek that Jarrett Guarantano and Camm Cooper got the majority of reps, but he didn’t rule Laura out as a starter against the Utes.
Heading into preseason camp, Rolovich reiterated the concerns he had occasionally expressed during the offseason about his team’s response to adversity on the pitch in 2020.
“There were times when I thought we had a lot of fighting inside of us, and I thought there was a time last year that we went to bed,” he said at the time. “And I was really honest with the team, and that’s something we really focused on. It comes from the investment, the work ethic, the mutual trust, and it was really the goal. ”
For months now, he has repeatedly hinted that less stringent coronavirus restrictions this year have allowed players and coaches to develop closer relationships. He hoped it would lead to more responsibility and resilience in difficult situations during a game.
“I know the mood is in a good position, much better than it was last fall,” he said before the start of the season. “You would think that would translate into victories.
“But,” he added, “it’s a fun game with a fun shaped ball, and there will be ups and downs.”