Q&A with Daily Evergreen sports editor Aarik Long

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Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A between Kabir Rao, football beat reporter at The Daily Californian, and Aarik Long, sports editor of The Daily Evergreen. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Kabir Rao: Washington State enters the game with a 1-3 record — the same as Cal. To make matters worse, the Cougars have been handily defeated in both Pac-12 games they’ve played to this point. What has been the biggest difference you’ve seen in the team between the 20-point win over Portland State and the three losses on the season?

Aarik Long: This team is having a lot of trouble finishing out games. Even seeing the first half, it’ll come into a good lead — against USC, it had a 14-7 lead at the half, and before that, it was 14-0. The Cougars were up on Utah and blew that lead. They were up on Utah State in the opener and blew that. Against Portland State, they were able to finish it out, but a lot of that comes from the Vikings being a Football Championship Subdivision team and less talented. WSU has not made many second-half adjustments, and the adjustments it is making aren’t the right ones. 

KR: What are the Cougars’ strengths and weaknesses?

AL: Their defense is one of their bigger strengths. They always start out strong and force turnovers. As the game rolls on, however, they get tired from being on the field so much — it wears them down. For example, we saw the 45 straight points that USC put up. Offensively, it’s a weird mix of strengths. The running backs are probably the best unit on the team. Max Borghi, Deon McIntosh and Nakia Watson — the three of them together are really good. But the offensive line is much better at pass blocking than it is at run blocking, which is a side effect of many of them being former head coach Mike Leach’s players who were recruited for the Air Raid offense. The offense is built to be able to run the ball with the running backs, but they can’t run very well because the offensive line is not good at run blocking. Honestly, the biggest strength on offense is Jayden de Laura. If he plays this week, it’s going to be a whole different game than if he isn’t able to.

KR: What should the team do to fix the run blocking and some of its other weaknesses?

AL: Going to more of a run-pass option offense would help a lot and would keep the defense on its toes. We saw a bit of that during fall camp. De Laura is a natural player for the RPO scheme; he’s quick and can think on his feet. Give the offensive line a chance by keeping the defense on its toes via play-calling. Don’t be so predictable; there are a lot of plays that end up being pass, pass, pass. It gets the defensive line and the front seven in a spot where they know what is coming. The same happens when the Cougars run the ball — it just becomes run, run, run. It gets into a rhythm, and the defense gets into that same rhythm such that it’s able to shut the offense down. Finding a way to keep the opposing defense on its toes would help a lot.

KR: Flashing back to 2020, Washington State’s football program had trouble meeting COVID-19 requirements. There has been talk surrounding head coach Nick Rolovich’s stance on getting vaccinated — what do you make of it?

AL: I’ve written a few pieces on Rolovich. I’m not his biggest fan at all. I don’t really think he is the right fit at WSU — he’s more suited for a Group of Five school like Hawaii. He’s not quite capable yet of coaching against bigger teams. Obviously, the vaccination situation is bad; that should have been resolved months ago. But at the same time, it’s starting to become a talking point that some media members harp on, and they don’t look at the football side as much. There are both sides of the spectrum there. It’s a big issue, and that’s one of the big reasons why WSU Director of Athletics Pat Chun and university President Kirk Schulz need to start looking at him and his contract a little closer. But at this point, there’s not a lot to talk about anymore because Rolovich won’t talk about it with the media at all.

KR: What is the biggest difference between Leach and Rolovich, both in terms of offensive scheme and in general?

AL: Offensive lineman Abraham Lucas had an interesting quote after the USC game. He said Leach was more of a dictator, while Rolovich is more of a players’ coach. That was really interesting. You can see that through Leach’s interviews — he was more, “this is my answer, and this is what it’s going to be.” That’s one of the big differences personalitywise. Offensively, it’s not a massive difference because the Air Raid and the run-and-shoot are related offensive schemes. The Air Raid offense is more pass-heavy, but the offenses are similar enough that the transition hasn’t been too bad for the offense. But trying to run the ball a decent amount with that offensive line just isn’t working right now.

KR: Neither the Bears nor the Cougars have been stellar this season — both are sitting in the Pac-12 North basement. Do you see any similarities between these two teams?

AL: Both teams are struggling. Neither is going to be in the title hunt this season, so it’s all about getting a few wins and hopefully becoming bowl eligible. Obviously, with three losses in four games, it’s going to be tough to win five out of your next eight. But it’s possible, and that’s what both teams are going to be looking for. A win this weekend would be a big step in that direction.

KR: Which Cougar do you see giving the Bears the most trouble Saturday?

AL: It really depends on who plays. If de Laura is out there, he’s going to be wreaking havoc on offense. If Borghi is able to play — we saw him leave the Utah game favoring his wrist, and after halftime, he came out in street clothes — he’ll be dangerous. Both of those guys didn’t play in the second half of that game; de Laura did not even start after suffering a knee injury against USC. One of those two guys will cause the most havoc on offense. If neither of them plays, it’ll probably be McIntosh because he’ll take the majority of snaps at running back, or a receiver like De’Zhaun Stribling, Calvin Jackson Jr. or Donovan Ollie. WSU is deep at the wide receiver position this year. Defensively, Jaylen Watson and Jahad Woods are probably the guys to look out for; they’re the clear leaders on this defense. Justus Rogers is a name that doesn’t get quite as many shouts as those two, but he’s right there with them in terms of productivity. Those would probably be your three on defense.

KR: Sophomore quarterback de Laura has experienced some injury problems this season and is questionable to play Saturday. What impact does he have when he’s leading the team on the field compared to Jarrett Guarantano? How do their skill sets differ?

AL: They have overlapping skill sets because they’re both dual-threat guys. De Laura is a lot more mobile than Guarantano. Guarantano is slightly better at making decisions for the most part. There are plays where Guarantano will leave you scratching your head because he’ll throw it right into coverage. But de Laura is a little more unhinged than Guarantano — when de Laura runs with the ball, he holds the ball out a bit and it’s dangerous. De Laura is more willing to make those high-risk, high-reward plays and throw it downfield. But a lot of times, when de Laura makes those throws, there is no way for the defender to get there — he puts the ball right where it needs to be. Both guys are decent enough starters, but I think de Laura is the guy that needs to be out there if WSU wants to win games. The offense just looks more excited under de Laura. In the Utah State game, when Guarantano was out there, the offense looked sluggish and wasn’t moving very well. De Laura came in, and everything kicked up a notch. Everyone looked like they had something to play for, and everyone looked like they were giving 110% as opposed to the 90% or 100% they were giving before. De Laura seems to be a better leader on the field. Watching how the team plays when de Laura comes onto the field, it seems like he has the team’s confidence.

KR: Borghi was on the preseason watchlists for both the top running back and top receiver awards in the country. Obviously, him being out with an injury has been significant. Who do you think can step up in his absence?

AL: Not having Borghi is a huge loss. He’s the type of guy that can be All-Pac-12 and an All-American honorable mention. Borghi is an elite player, but stepping up in his absence is McIntosh. He’s been the No. 2 guy this season and was the starter last year when Borghi did not play. McIntosh is a transfer, but he has been putting in the work. After him is Nakia Watson, who just came in this year from Wisconsin. Watson is a little bigger than McIntosh and runs in more of a power style, but he’s still quick and able to make some moves. Those two are going to the majority of the snaps at running back. I think McIntosh will get 60% to 75% of the snaps if Borghi doesn’t play, and the rest would go to Watson. Not having Borghi is a big hit, but with those two, it’s not a debilitating one.

KR: Shifting to the defensive side, the Cougars appear to have experienced a renaissance, going from one of the worst passing defenses to suddenly being No. 6 in the nation with 10 takeaways. What changes made that possible this season?

AL: It’s hard to pick out any one thing that has helped them. A lot is due to the guys getting more experienced and comfortable in their positions. Guys like Jaylen Watson in the secondary have been big. Getting pressure on the quarterback has been big, and that’s what Woods and others have been able to do on the front end. It comes down to that: getting pressure on the quarterback, forcing them to put the ball somewhere where it shouldn’t be put and the guys in the secondary just doing their job.

KR: Woods’ 351 career tackles are the most among active players in the conference and third-most among all active Football Bowl Subdivision players. What makes him so successful, and do you think he’ll continue his dominant run against the Bears?

AL: For sure. Woods will be one of the focal points on defense this week. He’s a really good athlete, and he sees the plays really well. Woods is quick and able to get around his blockers, and he can see where a play is going. Sometimes when you are watching a play, it’s fun to key in on Woods and watch him specifically because you can almost see his mind working as he is watching the quarterback. That’s the biggest part of it: He’s a great athlete, but even more than that, he’s a phenomenal student of the game.

KR: For those less familiar with Washington State football, what exactly does the phrase “Couging it” mean?

AL: It’s definitely more of a time-honored tradition at WSU. I’m from Georgia and root for a lot of the Georgia teams, so “Couging it” is not exactly new to me — it’s just a new name for it. It’s been a theme a lot more in the Rolovich era than it was under Leach. Obviously, it happened under Leach against UCLA, when the Bruins came back. But under Rolovich, it has been a lot more consistent. Someone explained it to me once as “grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory,” and I think that’s a pretty good way of explaining what “Couging it” is at WSU.

KR: What does Washington State need to do to win this game?

AL: The Cougars need to win in the trenches. That can be said about any football game, but the trenches are the most important part of the football field. You need the offensive line to get its blocks — that is something it’s struggled with this season. All of the WSU quarterbacks have been under pressure, and Borghi has been hit pretty soon after he gets the ball. If the offensive line can keep its blocks going and the defensive line can get pressure on Chase Garbers, that will be big. Also, the Cougars just need to be healthy. They need de Laura and Borghi to play, and they need their defense at full strength. This is a game that they are capable of winning. But even if they go into the half with a lead, it’s the second half that worries me.

KR: Is there anything else significant about this game we have not touched on yet?

AL: Not that I can think of. It is going to be a big one for both teams. Sitting at 1-3, you need a win if you want a chance at a bowl game. If you drop to 1-4, it gets a lot more difficult. Especially for WSU, if the Cougars lose this game, there are not really five other games on the schedule that they can win — they have Oregon State for homecoming, Stanford, BYU, Arizona State, Arizona, Washington and Oregon still to come. That is maybe two or three wins, so WSU has to win this game if the team wants a shot at a bowl game. It’s early in the season. It’s Week 5. But it’s already a must-win game for WSU.

KR: The last time these two teams were supposed to meet was in 2020, but COVID-19 concerns on Cal’s side forced a cancellation just hours before kickoff. How do you think this year’s matchup will go, and what is your final score prediction?

AL: As much as I want to say WSU will win, I’m not too confident. I believe Cal is favored right now — they’re either 7- or 8-point favorites. It will be pretty close. I don’t think WSU will get blown out of the water, but I don’t think it will end up winning. I’ll say 24-21, Cal.

Kabir Rao covers football. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @kabirr26.

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