Washington State Football Offensive Preview

Just when you thought Mike Leach shenanigans weren't embarrassing enough, Wazzu hired Nick Rolovich to be their head coach. Sorry, wrong type of offensive preview.

Washington State is 1-3, with the lone victory over an FCS team. Sound familiar? With Oregon State’s surprising victory over USC, it will be Cal and Washington State battling it out to see who is firmly in control of the Pac-12 North’s cellar. Boy, I sure hope it’s those guys.

I had a much different preview planned, but at the time of this writing, quarterback Jayden de Laura (knee) and running back Max Borghi (arm) have just been upgraded from questionable to probable for Saturday, so I will write this article under the assumption that they will both play. Without those two, you can skip the rest of this article and summarize their offense as follows:

Many Cal fans were expecting this year’s super-experienced Cal team to contend for the Pac-12 North. Now just to become bowl-eligible, we’re looking at Cal needing victories over Wazzu, Arizona (sole owner of the Pac-12 South’s cellar, including the loss to an FCS team), Oregon State, Colorado, and at least one of: Stanford, USC, UCLA, or Oregon. That means Cal needs to start taking care of business and winning games in which they are favored—such as on Saturday—and requiring at least one upset. Note that I listed the teams in order of probability of most likely to least likely for Cal victory (Wazzu listed before Arizona because Wazzu is a home game, and Arizona possesses bad juju in their home stadium and artificial crowd noise).

Again, Cal needs to take care of business Saturday to have any chance at a bowl game. This is the game to turn the season around.

Quarterback

Look, I will start by saying that I have not been a big fan of starting quarterback Jayden de Laura. He started as a true freshman last year, but he was one of the first to test positive for Covid as it ripped through the entire Washington State team last year, leading to the cancellation of multiple games last season. Perhaps he was careful and did everything right, but you have to have some doubt that he’s making smart decisions after he was arrested in February under suspicion of DUI after driving the wrong way down a one-way street (he refused a breathalyzer at the scene and was later found not guilty).

Personal issues aside, I still wasn’t a fan. He’s obviously very athletic and a constant threat on his feet, but I found his throwing and decision-making to be sub-par. That said, he has a lot of talent and he already looks markedly better this year (most of my lowlights are from last season).

So let’s start with the positives. His ability to read a defense has improved. The following play was a Jared Goff special: you throw to the zone vacated by the blitz. He recognizes the corner blitz, so he knows his receiver on the crossing route will be open in the zone vacated by the corner:

A lot of Wazzu’s passing attack is of the dink-and-dunk variety, but having the ability to take the top off the defense opens up the entire offense. Jayden de Laura can occasionally make a nice downfield pass:

Opposing teams need to commit a defender as a QB spy, because de Laura is a constant threat to escape the pocket and break off a big run:

He uses the threat of the run to pass, and the threat of the pass to run:

(Note: The following de Laura clips are from last season, but de Laura only played a half against USC and missed the Utah game, so I have limited material to pull from.) As I mentioned previously, de Laura did not always make great reads, and it was often costly:

Absolutely not a good decision:

Sometimes I really have no idea what it is that he’s seeing":

QB Jayden de Laura badly underthrows the pass into triple coverage, which luckily draws a flag for pass interference. The best possible outcome for a throw this dumb in the 4th quarter.

As we all know, Cal sometimes struggles to defend dual-threat quarterbacks. I’m positive that if de Laura does indeed play, he will find ways to hurt Cal on the ground. I don’t expect him to pick apart a Cal secondary, but he can occasionally make some good throws—they’re more frequent this year compared to last.

If he doesn’t play, the likely starter is senior Tennessee transfer QB Jarrett Guarantano. Guarantano was actually the starter for the season opener against Utah State, until he got pulled for taking a safety in the endzone. Guarantano is noticeably less mobile on his feet (de Laura often dodges sacks and extends plays on his feet), but you might expect the more experienced quarterback to make better decision or throw more accurate passes.

However, a lot of Guarantano’s throws were just slightly off. I don’t know if it’s due to a lack of chemistry with receivers on timing routes or just poor throws, but he often missed throws you might expect him to make:

Honestly, I wasn’t that much more impressed with his ability to read a defense either:

He threw three such interceptions last week against Utah. Utah was begging to lose the turnover battle, but Wazzu kept giving the ball right back.

He does have the ability to make some nice throws. On the following play, I am not sure if the credit belongs to WR De’Zhuan Stribling for the nice route he ran or a miscommunication in the Utah secondary (likely both), but here Guarantano was able to hit an open receiver over the middle for a touchdown. Note the clean pocket:

Jayden de Laura is obviously the quarterback of the future, but he still has a lot of room to grow. A lot of players tend to have their breakout games against Cal (I still have nightmares about Ryan Nall), so let’s hope de Laura’s growth is delayed at least another week.

Running back

I used to be a really big fan of Max Borghi (I once called him the next Christian McCaffrey), but unfortunately, he hasn’t really lived up to the hype I once imagined. He’s got tremendous speed and great pass-catching ability, and I am not sure if he’s been hampered by injuries or what (he was again injured last week against Utah), but in my opinion he just hasn’t lived up to his potential. Injuries aside, he is hands down the most dangerous player on the field, and I believe most teams these days gameplan specifically for Borghi.

Borghi’s specialty is breaking contain and using his speed to get to the edge:

Once he does get to the edge, good luck catching him, because he is gone:

Backing up Borghi is the less explosive but more powerful Deon McIntosh. McIntosh is far more likely to just run through tackles (an unfortunate weakness of the Cal defense this year):

Here McIntosh shows nice balance in keeping his feet as OSU tries to take his legs out from under him:

When Borghi was injured, Wazzu pretty much abandoned the run game and instead relied on the short passing game. I think McIntosh is a good change-of-pace runner, but I don’t think he’ll be beating Cal all by himself. That said, with the way Cal has been missing tackles, it wouldn’t surprise me if he did.

Wide receiver

Washington State has a number of talented wide receivers, and yet somehow all of my highlights ended up being of Travell Harris. It was Travell Harris whose play kept having me say, “Wait, let me rewind that and watch it again.” Travell Harris is a fantastic wide receiver, and really the only knock against him is that he’s a bit undersized at 5’9”. Travell Harris’ explosiveness means that Wazzu uses him to return kicks/punts, and he’s often the receiver seeing action through jet sweeps or swing passes into the flat, where you give him the ball and wait for something to happen.

First, Travell Harris is a fantastic route runner, which helps him get the separation he needs. Here he is embarrassing USC’s Greg Johnson:

And here he is putting a move on cornerback Isaiah Dunn, now with the NY Jets:

Nothing special about the following route, Harris just catches the defender flat-footed. However, he makes a nice diving catch, showing his reliable hands:

Harris is the type of player where Wazzu wants to get him the ball and let him create his own opportunities. Here he is taking the snap from the wildcat:

I’m probably focusing too much on Harris, because we’ll likely see some big plays from one of Wazzu’s other receivers, Calvin Jackson Jr. or freshman De’Zhuan Stribling, Wazzu’s other top targets. Although both Stribling and Jackson Jr. are good receiver, I feel like they’ve been schemed open, whereas Travell Harris makes himself open, and hence why I’m so often taking Harris highlights instead.

Conclusion

I think the Cal pass rush will struggle to get to the quarterback with future NFL offensive lineman Abraham Lucas at right tackle (and Liam Ryan at left tackle isn’t so bad either), especially given the mobility of QB Jayden de Laura. Wazzu’s quarterbacks are able to make good throws from a clean pocket, and it will be even easier to do so with if the Wazzu run game is clicking (namely, de Laura and Borghi). Cal will need to take away at least one aspect of their offense (the short passes, the run game, anything) in order to slow them down. I think the best course of action is anything that dares Wazzu to beat Cal through the air. Cal absolutely should be the favorite in this game, especially given Wazzu’s struggles to tie it all together, but I would not be surprised if this game is the one where Wazzu suddenly ties it all together to get their offense firing on all cylinders.

Go Bears.

P.S. - Nick Rolovich is a bozo.