Cougs have a chance to slay demons

Washington State coach Nick Rolovich, right, speaks with offensive lineman Liam Ryan during the first half of a Sept. 18 game against USC at Gesa Field.

As many have noted, Washington State’s game against USC last week marked the fourth time in the seven-game Nick Rolovich coaching tenure that the Cougars had lost despite leading by at least 12 points at some juncture of the game.

Today will mark another reminder of that.

The Cougars (1-2, 0-1) play Utah (1-2, 0-0) at 11:30 a.m. 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 their 2020 season finale.

Washington State led 28-7 with 20 minutes remaining before allowing 38 consecutive points and committing turnovers on its final four possessions. The result was a 45-28 loss to cap a 1-3 season.

In other words, a win in this one might slay a few Cougars demons.

“There was a time in that game, according to ESPN, I think we were 94.6 (percent) to win that game, and we didn’t get it done,” Rolovich said early this week, referring to the network’s win probability index.

He said he’s been talking about “finishing” since that game in December.

“Finishing your reps, finishing your offseason workouts, your running — that was one of the focuses in the offseason,” he said. “It will be good to get a chance to get back down there and flush that from the memory banks.”

The context is different this time.

Because of injuries and coronavirus issues in 2020, the Cougars had boarded their plane to Salt Lake City with 53 scholarship players, exactly the number the Pac-12 was urging as a minimum for participation. If necessary, they were prepared to play with 51 or 52. As the game wore on, the situation became dire at certain positions.

“I don’t think we have another D-tackle that could play,” Rolovich said afterward. “I’m not sure we had another safety that could play.”

The Cougars have seemingly avoided virus problems lately, and the NCAA’s decision to give 2020 seniors an extra year of eligibility has boosted many teams’ depth.

Still, the Cougs’ come-from-ahead losses continue. They blew a 12-point lead in a season-opening setback against Utah State, and they breezed to a 14-point advantage that could easily have been 21 last week vs. USC before spinning away to a 45-14 loss.

A key factor that day was an unexplained leg injury that sidelined sophomore quarterback Jayden de Laura for most of the second half. He had also struggled with a late knee injury in last year’s Utah debacle.

De Laura’s status this week is unknown. Rolovich, who closed practices to the media once the season began, said midweek that Jarrett Guarantano and Camm Cooper had been getting the majority of reps, but he didn’t rule out de Laura as the starter against the Utes.

Heading into preseason camp, Rolovich reiterated concerns he’d voiced occasonally during the offseason about his team’s response to on-field adversity in 2020.

“There were times when I thought we had a lot of fight in us, and I thought there were times last year when we folded,” he said at the time. “And I was very honest with the team, and that was something we really focused on. That comes from investment, work ethic, trust in each other, and that was really the focus.”

For months now, he has repeatedly implied that less stringent coronavirus restrictions this year have allowed players and coaches to develop closer relationships. He hoped that would lead to more accountability and resilience in difficult situations during a game.

“I know the mindset is in a good place, much better than it was going into last fall,” he said before the season began. “You would think that would translate into wins.

“But,” he added, “this is a funny game with a funny-shaped ball, and there will be highs and low.”

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

Around the Pac-12

Alas, only two ranked schools in the Pac — even before these teams start beating one another up.

Washington St. at Utah

Cougs should go to Lost and Found and ask for their 21-point lead.

NO. 24 UCLA at Stanford

Chip Kelly will stop in Fresno and throw a raspberry.

California at Washington

Justin Wilcox searches for his missing defense in the town where he first learned it.

Arizona at NO. 3 Oregon

Worst against first?

Oregon St. at USC

Another amazing thing about Jaxson Dart’s performance in Pullman: His knee was so badly hurt that he’s now out indefinitely.

Colorado at Arizona St.

Both these teams languished last week, but the Sun Devils had a better reason to.

— Dale Grummert

Around the Big Sky

No more beating up FBS teams. This week, conference play kicks off in the Big Sky.

Sacramento State at Idaho State

The Hornets beat the spread against Cal of the Pac-12 last week. Now, they’ll try to beat the winless Bengals.

Northern Arizona at Northern Colorado

Both teams have “northern” in their names, have one win this season and have mascots that can be found in the woods (Lumberjacks vs. Bears), but only one will start conference play 1-0.

Cal Poly at No. 4 Montana

It’s a rough start to conference play for the Mustangs, facing four ranked Big Sky foes in four consecutive weeks, starting with the Griz.

No. 13 Montana State at Portland State

The Bobcats are outsourcing their opponents by 40 points per game since losing a heartbreaker to Wyoming in their season opener.

No. 12 UC Davis at No. 14 Weber State

Only two spots separate these two teams in the rankings despite the Aggies being 3-0 and the Wildcats being 1-2.

No. 6 Eastern Washington at Southern Utah

The Eagles are the highest scoring team in the FCS at 53.3 points per game. Tall order for a Thunderbirds team that’s scored more than 14 points only once this season.

— Stephan Wiebe