Without exaggeration, I have been thinking about the road trip to see the Houston Cougars play at Washington State since the moment UH athletics confirmed the game.
It’s not that by itself this place is a uniquely desirable travel destination. The rolling hills of the Palouse are pretty, but the appeal of making a journey like this one is the fact that there aren’t too many direct flights from anywhere to Pullman, Washington.
And yet, now in May of 2020 I am faced with the reality that I’ll be grateful if this game happens under any circumstances and that it almost certainly won’t involve me being physically present in September at Martin Stadium.
Whether this game happens or not, this Cougs vs. Coogs showdown will feature 2 teams with lots of intrigue and preseason question to answer.
Big Picture Outlook:
When I began to look at the Washington State Cougars football program before last season, I marveled at one thing: the consistency. Former head coach Mike Leach went into last season off a program-record 4 straight bowl games and a 2018 season where the Cougs set the program record for wins (11) and finished 10th in the postseason AP Top 25.
It was the Leach formula from his days at Texas Tech to a ‘t’. The Cougs passed the ball more than anyone else in the country and forced teams to prepare for an incredibly unique look from that Leach Air Raid offense. That helped offset the fact that WSU is a school in rural southeastern Washington competing against schools from places like Los Angeles, Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Yet, it also felt going into last season that the marriage between Leach and WSU was growing stale. In the offseason before 2018 Leach was quite close to being named Tennessee head coach and that wasn’t his first dalliance with another school.
After a 7th straight double-digit loss in the Apple Cup to hated rival Washington, Leach got testy with reporters and a season that saw the Cougs get into the top 25 ended with a thud as they lost by 10 at the Cheez-it Bowl and finished with a 6-7 record. Less than 2 weeks later, Leach was being introduced as the new head coach at Mississippi State.
In comes new head coach Nick Rolovich, previously the head coach at Hawaii since the 2016 season. In those 4 seasons the Rainbow Warriors went to 3 bowl games and last season won 10 games and their division of the Mountain West conference.
Rolovich, a one-time Hawaii QB under June Jones, has an interesting offensive background. His 2 biggest influences come from playing and coaching Jones’ Run & Shoot offense and as an assistant coach running Chris Ault’s pistol offense. I have no good segue for this factoid but he also brought a tarot card reader, plus Elvis and Britney Spears impersonators to different preseason Mountain West media days when he was at Hawaii.
No coach out there was going to come in and run an offense like Leach’s, but in Rolovich the Cougs found a coach with a unique personality who isn’t afraid to be ‘pass-first’ and has proven he can win at a place with some institutional challenges. That general profile worked pretty well the last time WSU hired a football head coach.
Rolovich’s background is on the offensive side of the ball and he brought his entire Hawaii offensive staff with him to Pullman. While assistants Craig Stutzman and Brian Smith have offensive coordinator titles, I expect Rolovich will call plays on game day like he did at Hawaii.
The first challenge facing Rolovich, beyond installing a new offense without the usual spring practice, is the quarterback position.
On the current WSU roster there isn't a QB with anything close to meaningful Division 1 experience. Going to last year Wazzu may have looked like they were in a similar predicament. But they had their choice of 5th year senior backups (Anthony Gordon, Trey Tinsley) or an accomplished Division 1 FCS grad transfer (Gage Gubrud).
All 3 of the QBs who saw game action for the Cougs last year have exhausted their eligibility and none of the 4 current QBs on the 2020 WSU spring roster have ever played in a Division 1 game.
Third-year sophomore Cammon Cooper on paper seems like the most likely of the returners to win the starting job. Cooper was a 4-star recruit out of Lehi, Utah and broke numerous state high school passing records.
The other returner I think will be in the mix for the job is redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz, a one-time high 3-star recruit from suburban Phoenix. Like Cooper, Cruz is a taller pocket-passer.
With a competition as wide open as this one you cannot discount high 3-star Hawaiian incoming freshman Jayden de Lauria: the Cougs’ top rated high school signee. Rolovich offered a scholarship to de Lauria while he was at Hawaii and could be more comfortable with him than than the returning QBs.
If this was a normal offseason, I’d feel certain that the staff was going to bring in a grad transfer to compete for the job and bring some experience to what will be a very young quarterback room.
Given that they passed the ball more than anyone in the country, you might be surprised to find out that the Cougs return 2 interesting options at running back.
Junior Max Borghi was the rare true freshman to play a significant role in a Leach offense with 12 total touchdowns in 2018 on that record-setting team. Borghi’s encore was a sophomore season where he finished with 811 rushing yards, caught a team-high 86 passes and tied for 2nd in the PAC-12 with 16 total touchdowns.
I expect Rolovich will continue to use Borghi as a weapon in both the run and pass game, but I’ll be interested to see if the new offense gives Borghi a chance to be a 1,000-yard rusher before his career ends.
The other option is senior Deon McIntosh who joined WSU last summer and has an interesting pedigree. McIntosh at one time appeared to be the heir-apparent to start at RB for Notre Dame before he was dismissed from the program after the 2017 season. After an NJCAA All-American season at East Mississippi CC, McIntosh joined the Cougs and was 2nd on the team in rush yards last season.
With the uncertainty at quarterback and with a new coaching staff slightly less inclined to pass the ball I expect Borghi and McIntosh to be an even bigger part of the Coug offense in 2020.
Whoever wins the QB job will have a number of experienced receivers to throw to, even with some graduations from that group. It helps that Leach liked to rotate receivers and 7 different Cougs finished last year with 43+ receptions.
As for those graduations, its not nothing that the Cougs graduated their top 3 wide receivers from last year’s team (Dezmon Patmon, Brandon Arconado, Easop Winston Jr).
Senior Renard Bell is the receptions and TDs leader among returning WRs and he’ll be the Cougs’ best option as a slot receiver who can ‘move the sticks’. I expect junior Travell Harris to also see a fair amount of action in a similar role to Bell.
The Cougs’ most experienced option as a big outside threat is senior Tay Martin, who’s listed at 6'3" and 186 pounds and was tied for 2nd in yards per catch on the team last year. Senior Calvin Jackson Jr should also see a fair amount of the field after missing most of last season and taking a medical redshirt.
Up front the Cougs have a few linemen with the kind of significant experience you can build around, but little proven experience beyond those players.
Junior Abraham Lucas started his career as a Freshman All-American and is a 2-time All-PAC 12 selection, starting every game of the last 2 seasons at right tackle. In both of those seasons Lucas graded out as one of the country’s best pass-blocking tackles and with his measurables (listed 6’7’’/324 pounds) its easy to see him being a high NFL draft pick sooner rather than later.
Senior Josh Watson has also started all but 1 game the last 2 seasons at right guard and senior Liam Ryan is another 2-year starter and started every game of last season at left tackle.
Those are 3 guys with excellent track records, but those are also the only Coug linemen with any amount of starting experience. As UH fans know quite well, any kind of injury crisis along the line can completely derail an offense and Rolovich is going to have a tough season if any of the Lucas-Watson-Ryan trio misses extended time.
I like Rolovich’s background for the group of players he’s inheriting at WSU. I also think there’s no way WSU could have avoided some ‘growing pains’ learning a new offense, even in a normal offseason.
Adding pressure to Rolovich and the WSU offense getting things figured out quick is what looks like a sizable rebuild on the defensive side of the ball.
I really like Rolovich’s defensive coordinator hire: Jake Dickert, who has an impressive resume as an FCS/Division II DC and coordinated one of the stingiest defenses in the country last year at Wyoming. Also, bringing in someone who’s most recent coaching experience is in Wyoming and the Dakotas means there won’t be any issue with culture fit in the Palouse.
But, regardless of how much I like Dickert’s background and long-term prospects, he has a tough job ahead of him.
They had a good game against UH last September at NRG Stadium, but the Cougs were a terrible defense for most of 2019. This group allowed 67 points in a home loss to a bad UCLA team and 31 points or more in 7 of 9 PAC 12 games. The Cougs were bad against the run and not much better against the pass.
The good news for our Scarlett & Gray counterparts is that the Cougs do return a few of their most statistically productive players from last year, although this group is still deficient in key areas.
Maybe the most glaring deficiency is up front with a defensive line that was a weakness last season and not exactly an abundance of returning talent. Senior Will Rodgers III started most of the last 2 seasons and led the Cougs in sacks (4) last season and will play a bunch at defensive end. After that, it gets a bit murkier.
Junior Dallas Hobbs has the raw size at a listed 6 foot 6 and 285 pounds, plus the experience of getting his first meaningful career action last season. Sophomore Cosmas Kwete started his career off with a bang recovering a fumble in his collegiate debut against UH and its impressive that his was mentally and physically ready to play a bunch as a true freshman on the line.
But those are the only 3 WSU defensive linemen with anything close to meaningful Division 1 experience. The Cougs do have 2 JuCO linemen coming in: Amir Mujahid (Laney College) and Antonio Tuiava Pule III (Modesto JC), who will likely see a fair amount of the field in 2020.
I wasn’t exactly sure position group-wise where to put junior Willie Taylor III who’s started 21 games in the last 2 years as a standup ‘Rush’ end, but only has 6 sacks to his name over those 2 years.
A lot of the returning experience from the Coug defense is concentrated in a linebacker group that's not short on experience and production.
Senior Jahad Woods is one of this team’s last ties to strong Coug defenses in 2017-18. Woods started 23 of the 26 games he appeared in his first 2 years, earning Honorable Mention All-PAC 12 in 2018 and was 4th in the country last year with 141 total tackles (78 solo). Woods also led the Cougs in tackles for loss (10) and QB hurries (4).
In addition, fellow senior Justus Rogers returns after also starting every game in 2019, finishing 3rd on the team with 70 total tackles. I expect senior Dillon Sherman to also play a fair amount of snaps after being a rotation linebacker in 2018, but missing all of 2019 with a shoulder injury.
While he's listed on the spring 2020 roster as a linebacker, sophomore Travion Brown started the last 5 games of 2019 at the ‘Nickel’ position. While he only played 169 snaps last year, Brown had the 4th best Pro Football Focus grade among all PAC 12 linebackers. Impressive stuff for a true freshman.
Maybe what surprised me the most about Wazzu’s defensive collapse last year is I thought they would be at least decent against the pass with some contributors back from 2018. The Cougs allowed 5 different PAC-12 opponents to pass for over 300 yards, and allowed both UCLA and Stanford to each throw for over 500 yards.
Marcus Strong, the Cougs’ top corner, has graduated and the WSU family had to deal with the tragic, unexpected passing of every-game starting safety Bryce Beekman.
The Cougs return another multi-year starter: senior safety Skyler Thomas, who led the Cougs in interceptions (4) and fumble recoveries (2) and finished 2nd in total tackles (72). Sophomore Tyrese Ross was 6th on the team in tackles last year despite only appearing as a reserve and fellow sophomore Pat Nunn started 2 games last year.
Grad transfer Phillip Powell from the University of South Dakota brings experience at the FCS level and led the Jackrabbits last year with 2 interceptions 18 combined breakups and passes defended. Given the lack of depth the Cougs have on the back end I can’t imagine Powell won’t play a lot.
Senior George Hicks III is the most experienced returning cornerback and tied with Strong for the team lead in passes defended (5). Juniors Armani Marsh and Derrick Langford both saw a fair amount of reserve action and logged starts at corner.
The problem with this defense isn’t really cumulative experience. In terms returning production, the Cougs had the 22nd most experienced defense in the country, prior to Beekman’s passing (the Coug offense is 121st in returning production).
No, the problems lie more in correcting all the issues that led them to be such an abysmal unit in 2019. Returning production is valuable and a reliable indicator for improvement, but we’re talking about returning production from a defense that was pretty terrible.
Also, I expect the new-look Coug offense under Rolovich to play at an above average tempo and that will have its own effect on how the Coug defense performs whenever we have football again.
This isn’t a one-year turnaround on defense, although I think Rolovich has the right guy to get this group eventually playing like they did in 2017-18.
While Mike Leach naturally didn’t recruit Texas nearly as much as he did back when he was coaching in the Lone Star state, his staff still made occasional forays into Texas and there are still 5 Texans on the roster: including both of the Cougs returning specialist starters.
Junior Blake Mazza (Plano) became the first Lou Groza Award finalist (top kicker in college football) in WSU program history last year after going an astonishing 20 of 21 on field goal attempts, including 2 for 2 on attempts 50+ yards.
At one point during the 2019 season Mazza hit 18 field goals in a row, the longest such streak for any kicker in the 2019 season and the longest in WSU history. Not bad for a guy who started his career walking on at Arkansas.
Senior Oscar Draguicevich III (Hutto) has been the first-choice punter for the last 2 seasons, and averaged over 45 yards/punt each season. Draguicevich only had 1 touchback in 30 punts last year and dropped 12 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
Junior Travell Harris returns after being the primary kick and punt returner for the Cougs in 2019.
Sophomore Tyler Williams was the Cougs primary deep snapper last year and while I can’t say I’ve gone back and watched all of Williams’ 2019 snaps, the performance of Mazza/Draguicevich is a good endorsement of his ability.
Matching Up with the Coogs:
Nearly the entire time I wrote about Washington State last year, the thought of the Leach Air Raid going against what I knew would be an inexperienced UH secondary filled me with dread.
Considering the (Houston) Cougar defense fielded 1 Division 1 caliber corner most of the season, the simple fact UH stayed in the game with the country’s most pass happy offense was a pleasant surprise.
I expect the new look WSU offense to fit any definition of pass-happy, but we’re just about certain to see a drop in how often the Cougs air it out because nobody else passes as often as the Leach offense.
There’s the challenge of installing entirely new systems on both sides of the ball without the usual spring practices and in the most unusual of off seasons. Even in normal times this kind of transition is difficult. It hasn’t happened yet, but I really wonder if we’ll see any of the still uncommitted grad transfer QBs out there right now go to Wazzu.
With respect to Rice in the opening week, this will be the first big test of UH defense with a lot of new faces expected to make a big impact. If UH struggles to defend a team with a first-time starter QB running a new system, then a reevaluation of preseason expectations may be in order.
Not that I expect Wazzu to roll over or be an easy task, as this new QB will have experienced weapons like Max Borghi, Travell Harris, Tay Martin and others to work with. Joe Cauthen and the UH defensive staff’s ability to create pressure will be tested by Wazzu’s super veteran Tackles, who have excellent career track records in pass protection.
This will also be a big chance for the UH offense to avenge a 2019 performance at NRG that may have been the worst of the entire season. The game was a telltale sign that Holgorsen’s system and D’Eriq King weren’t clicking in the pass game, something that’ll hopefully be remedied by Clayton Tune’s comfort and experience in this offense.
The one thing UH was able to do well against WSU was run the ball (239 rush yds vs WSU) and with Kyle Porter/Mulbah Car returning and WSU looking thin up front, this could be a fortuitous match up.
It’s a long, long haul from Houston to Pullman, Washington and traveling that distance dampens some of my confidence in UH’s ability to get the road P5 upset. But there are a lot of reasons for optimism and hopefully we’ll all get to see this return game in some form here in several months.