The long and crazy week for Washington State comes to a close on Saturday as the Washington State Cougars (4-3, 3-2) will host the BYU Cougars (5-2) in their first game under interim head coach Jake Dickert in a battle for “Go Cougs” supremacy.
On Monday, WSU announced the termination of head coach Nick Rolovich as well as four other assistants. Ricky Logo, Craig Stutzmann, John Richardson and Mark Weber all had their contracts terminated for not being able to comply with the state of Washington’s vaccine mandate.
The Cougars have met up four times in their history with the BYU version winning three of the four games. This will be the first time BYU makes the trip up to Pullman in the series short history.
The two first met in the 1981 Holiday Bowl. WSU trailed 31-7 in the third quarter and stormed all the way back to make it a 31-28 game by the end of the quarter. BYU would add a touchdown and hold on to beat WSU to win the Holiday Bowl 38-36.
WSU wouldn’t get their chance at payback until 1989 when WSU went down to Provo and beat top 25 ranked BYU 46-41 as this time it was BYU’s late comeback attempt that fell short.
BYU would finally complete the comeback the next year in 1990 as BYU, ranked number five in the AP poll, put up six second half touchdowns to erase WSU’s 29-7 lead at halftime to win 50-36. Drew Bledsoe did make an appearance in this game going two for three on passing attempts for 35 yards.
The series would resume in 2012 when Mike Leach would make his WSU debut at his alma mater. The return of Leach’s air raid would be shot down in a hurry as BYU made quick work of WSU in a 30-6 route. Jeff Tuel would throw for 229 yards but the run game would combine for just -5 rushing yards. The only points for WSU came from two Andrew Furney field goals in the second quarter from 47 and 41 yards respectively.
The 2021 BYU Cougars
BYU came into the 2021 season with little to no expectations despite reaching as high as number eight in the AP poll in 2020 led by quarterback Zach Wilson. BYU finished that season at 11-1 and ranked 11th in the final AP poll. BYU lost several key seniors to graduation and three juniors, including Wilson, to the NFL Draft.
Yet despite all the low expectations and key losses on both sides of the ball, BYU found themselves heading into their matchup against Boise State with a 5-0 record and ranked 10th in the nation. Since their rattling off five straight wins, three coming against Pac-12 opponents in Arizona, Arizona State and Utah, they’ve dropped two straight to Boise State and Baylor that dropped them out of the top 10 and top 25 entirely.
Meet the (other) Cougars
Sophomore quarterback Jaren Hall started the year for BYU before a late injury in the forth quarter against Arizona State sidelined him for two games. Fellow sophomore QB Baylor Romney stepped in for BYU and threw four touchdowns and 492 yards in his two games started against USF and Utah State. Hall returned to action against Boise State and Baylor throwing two touchdowns, rushing for another and one interception. Hall was also sacked five times last week against Baylor. Hall likely still gets the start despite being the starter in both losses.
Starting in the backfield for BYU will be the sophomore Tyler Allgeier. Allgeier has carried the ball 136 times for 675 yards (nearly five yards per carry) while scoring for the Cougars nine times. Lopini Katoa figures to get in on the action to as he comes in averaging six carries per game on about four yards per carry. He didn’t receive any carries last week against Baylor however.
BYU has three six foot receivers they like to spread the ball out to in the air. The first name that sticks out is former Pac-12 player Puka Nacua who spent two seasons in Seattle. Nacua brought in his first touchdown for BYU last weekend with a nice toe-tap catch. Nacua has 19 more catches for a total of 444 yards. 168 of those coming against Baylor last Saturday. Gunner Romney, brother of quarterback Baylor Romney, leads BYU receiving in yards with 452 on 26 catches and three touchdowns. The tallest of the trio, 6’4 Neil Pau’u has the most receptions and receiving touchdowns at four. 6’6 freshman tight end Isaac Rex is also a threat to score with three of his 13 catches being for six points.
Defense has been a struggle for BYU. They rank 79th in the nation (130 teams) in total yards allowed, 87th in passing yards allowed and 77th in rushing yards allowed. On top of this, they are also terrible at getting their defense off the field as they allow teams to convert on third down at a 42.5% rate (96th in the nation.) BYU does do a fine job at creating takeaways however as they come in with 12 total.
Despite BYU being ranked top ten just three weeks ago and WSU losing their head coach just a few days ago, BYU comes in with only a 58.7% chance to win according to ESPN’s Power Football Index and 4.5 point favorites.
Keys to Success
With BYU’s offensive line struggling to keep Jaren Hill upright last week against Baylor and WSU coming off their best week in terms of getting to the quarterback, WSU needs to keep the trend going by making sure Hill has a tough time putting it up for his big receivers to come down with. This task is a lot easier said than done however as despite BYU’s struggles last week, they are still one of the best pass-blocking lines in the country according to Pro Football Focus.
Jayden de Laura arguably threw his best deep ball last week. He found both Travell Harris and Calvin Jackson Jr. from 30+ yards out and hit Jackson Jr. right on the money for a 41 yard pass to help set up the eventual game-winning drive. With BYU struggling on defense, particularly in the secondary, having de Laura continue to be a threat to throw it deep consistently will help open up the offense.
It’s very unusual to have a team coming off three straight wins, a team that has seriously improved and keeps getting in better in each of those three games, to have a huge curtain of uncertainty surrounding them. We got to watch the first act directed by Nick Rolovich and while the introduction was slow, they made up for it with an incredible and exciting stretch of scenes including a guest star appearance of Butch T. Cougar defeating Benny the Beaver’s and stealing his chainsaw to cut down the Stanford tree to reel you back in. But now the curtain has dropped for the first act and Rolovich and other members of the production crew have left the theater. Will the second act be able to continue the excitement and drama that the first act ended on without them or will it simply fall flat on its face.
As fans, we are now swirling around in the void of uncertainty that we were just in back in January of 2020 when Mike Leach left for Starkville. While this is certainly an interesting and uneasy time to be a fan, for the people in this football program, they sit even deeper in the void. For the staff that remains, they were brought in by Rolovich only to be left behind and face the uncertainty of the future after these last five games end. They were surely assured to be in this with Rolovich for the long-haul. They could bring their families and settle into the small-town of Pullman, Washington for the foreseeable future. Now, they don’t know if they’ll still be living here or not come January
For the players
For the players, this is just another brutal gut-punch into what’s been a traumatic series of events, especially for the upperclassmen. For players who have been here since 2018, they have had to deal with two deaths of two beloved teammates in Tyler Hilinski and Bryce Beekman. A pandemic that stopped, resumed, stopped again and resumed again their 2020 football season that would only see them play a quarter of the games they would usually play. A teammate being shot and having to be airlifted in critical condition just a month prior and now they are on their third different head coach and could enter their second different head coach search and complete staff overhaul come January. Yet every time this program has bounced right back up and continued to fight. This Saturday marks nothing different.
They still have alot left to play for. If Oregon State loses this Saturday, the Cougs will bein control of their own destiny in the Pac-12 North. A bowl game is still well within reach at only two wins away. A date with a rival that’s had their number the past decade but has struggled this season also awaits them to conclude the year.
This season isn’t over by any means. While we face a future of uncertainty, we still have the present. And while we are still here in the present, we know what at least lies ahead of us for the next six weeks. So, for these players and staff, they’ve been left only one choice. Fight like hell. Let the rest figure itself out.
Fans, pack the house and bring the energy if you can. Come support these players and staff that have been through so much. They deserve all our support. Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m. at Gesa Field on Saturday.