Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A between Jasper Kenzo Sundeen, football beat writer for The Daily Californian, and Cody Schoeler, football reporter for the Daily Evergreen. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. All statements were made Tuesday.
Jasper Kenzo Sundeen: The Cougars faced an almost month-long COVID-19 layoff. What do you think are the effects of that?
Cody Schoeler: They definitely came out slow and they didn’t look very well for much of that game on Sunday. How much of that was COVID and how much of that was them just being outmatched — we don’t know. But from what it looked like, the Cougars should be over whatever rust they had by now. They have a full week of practice and a game under their belt, so that shouldn’t be an issue, but it didn’t look good. So if it is something that impacts the rest of the season and it takes them off their game, that could be big.
I do think one of the benefits of the layoff that coaches have talked about was being able to get guys healthy and heal up, whether it was an injury that was keeping them out or if they were just nicked up. That could be a benefit of the three weeks off from games — getting healthy and back on the field.
JKS: Does Washington State have any big or critical COVID-19 absences?
CS: The last game, we did have a lot of our secondary out. A starting corner, a backup corner and then two safeties were out. One of them was due to COVID, we know that. I got that confirmed. One of the guys has been out all season. It could be an opt out, could be an injury, but he’s listed on the depth chart, so it should be an injury. Those have been the only ones we know of. Our quarterback got COVID over that hiatus, so he was able to come back, but that’s the only guy that we know about as of right now.
JKS: Jayden de Laura has been consistent in his first two games. He obviously came out a little flat against USC. What did the Trojans do to limit him and how do you think he’ll respond against Cal?
CS: It’s hard to say. I know coach Nick Rolovich didn’t say much; he says he needs to look at the film. I don’t know how much of it was de Laura and him being off, or if the offense in general was just bad. The things he was able to do in those first couple of games were just play within the offense and do what he was supposed to do. He made a lot of quick throws — he likes to get the ball out fast — and then he took shots every once in a while. The offense was doing that, and obviously the USC secondary is very good, so it matches up. I haven’t watched the game again and broken down every play, but if a team is able to take away the slot guys, that takes away a lot of what de Laura does because he’s targeted and passed to them heavily. The outside receivers really haven’t done much, so that’s the key to stopping him, or at least rattling him.
And then, obviously, as with any quarterback but especially a freshman, getting pressure is key. USC did a lot of blitzing and it was able to play, man. Especially with those defensive backs, they were able to rattle de Laura and force some bad throws, which he hadn’t done previously. Usually, the offensive line is really stout. It doesn’t give up pressure if the defense is just rushing four. So if you can blitz, if you can get pressure on him and force him to throw into some man-on-man coverages that the defense backs can win, then that’s what you have to do against him.
The thing that was impressive in his bad performance was his demeanor and his energy. He got taken out in the third quarter. I don’t expect him to have lost the starting spot. He didn’t take it hard, he wasn’t beat down about it. I think that’s a big thing, to see a freshman react like that.
JKS: To pivot onto the other side of the ball, the Cougars have been beat up in the passing game. They have one of the worst, at least statistically speaking, passing defenses in the Pac-12. What’s going on there? Is that something they can fix for the Cal game?
CS: They can fix it for the Cal game if the Cal passing offense doesn’t want to play well, but that’s really what it is. This has been a weakness of the team. Last year and the year before, the Cougars really haven’t had a good pass defense since they had a great pass rush, so we knew that it was going to be a problem and that’s just how it is. They have a lot of new guys — a lot of young guys, back there. It’s a weak part of this defense. Luckily, Cal doesn’t have the type of receivers that USC has. WSU did good against Oregon; it did fine against Oregon State, but it’s the big plays that really kill the team. It’s not something that the Cougars are going to fix in one game. It is an actual issue with this team; it’s something that hopefully can be fixed over time, but that’s definitely the way to beat this team. Statistically, WSU has one of the worst — and I can confirm from watching it play — it’s not the greatest secondary in this conference.
JKS: What are Wazzu’s strengths?
CS: The offense in general has been alright. The rushing offense in particular has been surprisingly good considering this is a team that hasn’t rushed the ball a lot. It has been without Max Borghi, but Deon McIntosh has been great. That mainly comes down to the offensive line. I mentioned it earlier, but the offensive line is the strongest unit. It’s the strength of this team. Before USC, it had only given up two sacks and it was both on linebacker blitzes. It’s been the main reason why McIntosh has been able to have success on the ground. The offensive line is definitely the strength of that offense. The team has playmakers and weapons outside of that, but it begins and ends with the offensive line.
JKS: Do you have anything else that you feel is significant about this game, for either team, that I haven’t touched on?
CS: The only other thing is if Borghi is able to play. He’s come back to practice, and there’s no word yet on if he’s healthy enough to play, but he’s practicing. He’s listed on the depth chart this week, so if he’s able to come back that would be huge. Obviously he’s one of the best backs in the conference. McIntosh has been great, but Borghi is really good and the biggest thing is that he would provide another weapon in the passing game because, like I mentioned, other than those two slot receivers, the Cougars haven’t really had anyone step up. If Borghi does play, then that definitely would prevent the offense from looking as bad as it did. He’s just a huge help for that team.
JKS: What is your prediction for this one?
CS: I predicted WSU to beat USC, and that obviously didn’t work out well. But, like I said, after you get two games canceled, I’m being optimistic. I’m hopeful for the rest of the season, so I’m picking WSU to win. I haven’t thought too much about the score. Historically, there have been pretty low scoring games. Cal ran that defense that could stop the air raid, though this is different. I’ll go with 28-24 WSU. Hopefully both defenses will step up, but both offenses are capable of putting up some points.
Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football and is the deputy special issues editor. Contact him at [email protected].