WSU column

Washington State offensive lineman Blake McDonald (79) and quarterback Jarrett Guarantano (18) look on in disbelief after USC came back in the second half to score 45 unanswered points to beat the Cougars in a Pac-12 game on Saturday at Martin Stadium in Pullman.

PULLMAN — It was a postgame interview that hearkened to the days before Zoom, before awkward panel-style Q-and-A's, all the way to the days when Washington State would just throw a bunch of journalists and a few football players into a room and let them hash it out.

The result was sometimes cathartic for the athletes and enlightening for the scribes.

After the Cougars' puzzling 45-14 loss to USC at Gesa Field on Saturday, senior offensive lineman Abe Lucas ignored the Zoom camera — ignored the strange fact that we could see him in the ops building but he couldn't see us in the press box —  and conjured up a throwback interview that came close to being the team's best performance of the day.

His message wasn't crystal clear. They rarely were in the old days either. Playing three hours of football in the wind and rain isn't the best way to clarify one's thoughts. And even when an intelligent football player's in the mood to be absolutely frank, he's also aware of a need for diplomacy.

But Lucas, one of the team's best players and shrewdest observers, still dropped some hints about what's happening here in the second year of the Nick Rolovich coaching tenure at Wazzu. Specifically, he alluded to the Cougs' recent tendency to come out swinging, then look confounded when the opponent swings back. They're 2-5 under Rolo, and four of those losses required the squandering of at least 12-point leads.

Among other things, Lucas implied, the Cougars might be experiencing culture shock. Although Rolovich shares certain traits with predecessor Mike Leach, they also represent polar-opposite views on player-coach dynamics, among other things.

“One is a dictator and one's a players' guy,” Lucas said, expressing no preference for either man's approach.

Are WSU players still trying to process a shift from Leach's simply stated authoritarianism to Rolovich's more nuanced message? Are they still trying to fine-tune their motivation and resolve in the face of the change? Has the transition been hampered even more than people realized by the pandemic, which limited player-coach interaction during Rolovich's debut season and allowed them to play only four games?

Lucas didn't unequivocally say so, but he talked a lot about culture:

“I'll say this as clearly as I can. This is an interesting time for Cougar football, just because there's a shift in culture. That's not a bad thing necessarily. We had the COVID year — didn't get to hit the ground running or anything like that. These things take time. They take time to build and they take time to build well. I think the right people are here for the job to make that happen.”

Of course, there are plenty of other factors involved in Rolo's slow start. He's installing new offensive and defensive schemes, and the pandemic undoubtedly slowed that process. It also obliterated the team's depth last year, making the Cougs' second-half collapses look a lot more inevitable than their first-half excellence.

As for this latest meltdown, the biggest apparent factor was the mysterious injury to dynamic quarterback Jayden de Laura, who was replaced by a walk-on who'd started the season as the fourth-stringer. That's not cultural studies. It's physics and psychology.

Rolovich said he has no reason to question his players' “mental toughness” in that game, and he's repeatedly lauded their progress in that regard since last year. Lucas, for his part, avoided such terms and made sure to sprinkle in remarks like “I'm not going to knock any of my teammates or any of my coaches — I love them all to death.”

So if anybody takes Lucas aside this week and smilingly takes him to task for that interview, it might be WSU  basketball coaches Kyle Smith and Kamie Ethridge.

Making a point about the absurdity of finger-pointing in a game as complex as football, the lineman said, “This is team sport, not an individual sport. If you like individual sports, go watch basketball or boxing.”

Zing.

Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.