It's the start of a new era for the Washington State Cougars as former Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich has replaced Mike Leach as the head Cougar. Rolovich and his new team hope to get things started on the right note when they head to Corvallis to face the Oregon State Beavers on Saturday night.
Leach, also known as "The Pirate," set sail for Mississippi State in January and took his well-known Air Raid offense with him. But in hiring Rolovich, Wazzu's offense may not change that much. The 41-year-old California native employs a version of the run-and-shoot, which he used to go 28-27 in four seasons at Hawaii, his alma mater. He saved his best for last, going 10-5 in 2019, including leading the Rainbow Warriors to an appearance in the Mountain West Championship Game and a victory over BYU in the Hawaii Bowl.
Now, Rolovich will get his first taste of life in the Pac-12 when the Cougars open their season — their 125th year of playing football — on the road in Reser Stadium against the Beavers.
"This team likes to play (and) likes to be on the football field together," Rolovich told reporters. "I can't guarantee any wins, but I can guarantee that we'll fight — and that gives us a chance."
Few prognosticators are giving them a chance to do much in the first year of the post-Leach era. Rolovich is inheriting a team that went 6-7 (3-6 in conference play), capped off by a loss to Air Force in the Cheez-It Bowl.
And the same pundits who are down on Washington State have a similar view of Oregon State, as the general expectation is these two teams will jockey with each other for the bottom spots in the Pac-12 North standings. Don't tell that to the Beavers, though. They're anxious to improve on a 5-7 record from last fall that included a 4-5 mark in Pac-12 action. Oregon State also is hoping to go to a bowl game for the first time since 2013.
"These guys are fired up to play," third-year head coach Jonathan Smith told reporters. "With all they've been through (amid the coronavirus pandemic) and how hard they've been working, I don't anticipate a major need from coaches needing to get guys fired up."
Adding fuel to that fire is motivation from losing six consecutive games to Washington State to help pad the Cougars' lead (54-46-3) in the series. Last year's meeting was a wild affair that featured a total of 107 points, including 48 in the fourth quarter alone, and 1,241 yards of offense. The game featured seven lead changes, as Wazzu rallied from 11 points down in the final 130 seconds for the 54-53 victory in Pullman.
Washington State at Oregon State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Oregon State -1.5
When Washington State has the ball
It's a new coach with a new system and a new quarterback at the controls for Wazzu. True freshman Jayden de Laura gets the call for Rolovich, joining the coach in the move from Hawaii over the offseason where the QB was a star at St. Louis High in Honolulu.
"He came in with a history in the family of the offense (at St. Louis High)," Rolovich told reporters of de Laura, who led that school to back-to-back state titles and perfect seasons, throwing 3,452 yards and 29 touchdowns last year. "He really put in the work and was productive and consistent. He’ll give us the best chance to move the ball this Saturday."
The first true freshman to start a season opener for Washington State, whether de Laura follows in the record-setting footsteps of both Anthony Gordon — last year — and Gardner Minshew II — in 2018 — remains to be seen.
But the three-star recruit has running back Max Borghi and an offensive line rated as one of the Pac-12's best on which to lean. Borghi is one of the conference's top offensive weapons, putting up 817 rushing yards, 597 receiving yards (both lead the team), and 16 total touchdowns (second in Pac-12). The junior playmaker's versatility — he averaged 6.4 yards per carry and also led the nation in catches by a running back (86) — coupled with a strong O-line should give de Laura some time to get acclimated.
The Cougars' line will need to be at its best right out of the gate going up against Oregon State linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr. He led the nation in tackles for a loss (22.5) and tied for third in sacks (14.0) despite playing with a broken thumb the last two games of the season.
"That guy is a beast," Washington State right tackle Abraham Lucas told reporters. "He didn’t really have a chance to play much against us last year because he had a broken hand, so I am excited to compete against him this year when he is full force. He’s a very skilled rusher, takes his job very seriously."
When Oregon State Has the Ball
They're also breaking in a new QB at the controls in Corvallis. Jake Luton took his game to the NFL, landing in Jacksonville with Minshew, and he'll make his first start for the Jaguars on Sunday with the former Cougar sidelined by a thumb injury. As for the Beavers, Luton's departure gives Tristan Gebbia his opportunity to shine.
"We liked his decision-making and his understanding of the offense," Smith told OregonLive.com. "I thought he got more accurate as camp went on. He did get pushed with some competition that actually helped him, but at the end of the day, we feel he gives us the best chance to move the ball and score."
Gebbia, a redshirt junior, finished with just 347 passing yards last year, but 243 of those came in his only start against Oregon in the season finale. Gebbia won't have wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins to throw to, since he's also now in the NFL, taking his 1,711 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns with him. True freshman Zeriah Benson is a name to watch after impressing in fall camp.
"He’s earned it — he really has," Smith told reporters. "He came in here, worked really hard (and) took advantage of some extra time (due to the COVID-19 delay of the season) studying the playbook."
But the success of the Beavers' offense will come down to the backfield. Running back Jermar Jefferson enters his third season trying to regain the form he showed in 2018 when he ran for a freshman school-record 1,380 yards. Injuries cost him three games and probably limited him others last season but he still produced 770 yards from scrimmage with eight touchdowns.
"I’ve been feeling really good this year," Jefferson told reporters. "I feel a lot quicker, a lot faster. I’ve gained weight since last year. I’ve been doing (stuff) to help keep me safe and healthy."
Washington State's defense was never really a strong suit under Leach, partially due to his high-scoring offenses, and that probably won't change with Rolovich taking over. The Cougars will be making the switch to a base 4-3 under coordinator Jake Dickert, who comes over from Wyoming. The defense will be anchored by senior linebacker Jahad Woods, a tackling machine with a motor that never quits.
Nobody's sure whether this year's meeting between Washington State and Oregon State will be another shootout or more of an offensive struggle, given the question marks at quarterback for each team.
But let's give Cougars true freshman Jayden de Laura two or three games to get himself adjusted to the college game. Or, at the very least, this one tilt. After all, Oregon State is a year older and should bring an improved defense that should slow down Wazzu's new offense under new head coach Nick Rolovich.
The same goes for Beavers starting quarterback Tristan Gebbia, which is likely to make for a lower-scoring game, especially compared to last year.
In the end, the two best weapons are the running backs. And while Wazzu is likely to try and move the ball fast, especially with Max Borghi such a vital part of the passing game, the Beavers are likely to try and slow it down by pounding it early and often with Jermar Jefferson at the Cougars' inexperienced defensive line that's making the transition to a new scheme under a new coordinator.
That should be the ultimate key for Oregon State. Give the edge to the home team.
Prediction: Oregon State 36, Washington State 30
Podcast: Week 10 Preview and Predictions