PULLMAN — Washington State players and coaches may be idle this week, but that doesn’t mean their minds are. After consecutive losses to UCLA and Utah, the Cougars have assuredly spent much of the bye week contemplating everything that’s led to their sluggish start in Pac-12 Conference play, which dropped them to 3-2 overall and forced a situation where now they’ll have to close the regular season 3-4 just to finish .500 and reach a fifth consecutive bowl game.
There’s plenty ailing WSU at the moment, but the Cougars can take some solace in knowing they still rank among the national leaders in total offense and have a quarterback on record-setting pace, even after the Air Raid hit a rare speed bump last weekend in Salt Lake City.
After five weeks, we take a look at five stats to explain where the Cougars have succeeded and five more that give us a better idea of their shortcomings.
8.7: How many different ways, and how often, can the Cougars utilize Max Borghi? You could make a case for Anthony Gordon being the most valuable offensive player through five games, but Borghi’s been the most consistent, as evidenced by his 8.7 yards per touch. The sophomore running back is averaging 7.7 yards per carry and 10.9 per reception, and while his usage has varied a bit, he’s been able to give WSU something — in most cases, a lot of somethings — in every game he’s played.
Borghi trotted into the end zone just once against UCLA, but he accounted for 203 yards of total offense.
In the second game of the season, against Northern Colorado, he totaled just 51 all-purpose yards but punched in three touchdowns.
Borghi and Deon McIntosh haven’t proven to be as interchangeable as Borghi and James Williams were last season — at least not yet — so moving forward, the coaches have a delicate balance to strike. Borghi’s talent warrants the touches he gets, and at times he could use a few more, but it’s also essential the Cougars don’t overuse him.
22: Saturday’s 35-point loss to Utah was certainly a backstep for Anthony Gordon and the offense, which had trouble moving the ball consistently underneath driving rainstroms, without reliable “Y” receiver Brandon Arconado and while facing one of the most talented defensive secondaries in the country.
-7: Through the nonconference schedule, we would’ve placed WSU’s turnover margin in the top section of this story. But in Pac-12 play, it’s been one of the more atrocious numbers to look at and a massive reason the Cougars are off to an 0-2 start.
Thanks to those first three games, against teams that are now a combined 3-12, the Cougars are even in the turnover margin, with 10 committed turnovers and 10 forced turnovers. It shows how gruesome those last two games were that, at one point, WSU was top-three nationally in turnover margin. The Cougars thieved New Mexico State, Northern Colorado and Houston eight times and only gave the ball up twice, both times on interceptions from Gordon, who can’t be faulted for tossing a few every now and then with how often WSU airs it out. WSU has now dropped to No. 65 in the country and it’s hard to imagine anybody in the country has had a tougher two-game stretch in the turnover margin than the Cougars, who gave the ball away six times against UCLA and twice more against Utah. Meanwhile, WSU’s defense only took it away once.
5: Five pass breakups in a single game is not outstanding, but it’s bearable if you aren’t being thrown at too often. But, five pass breakups in two games when you’ve been thrown at 68 times is flat out unacceptable. There’s no disputing the Cougars have struggled on all three levels defensively, but if you’re just relying on the naked eye, it’d be hard not to judge the secondary more harshly than the other two units.
The defensive line isn’t generating sufficient pressure on quarterbacks and the linebackers aren’t taking underneath routes away, or tackling as well as they should, but the cornerbacks and safeties are the ones leaving big pockets of space between themselves and wide receivers, and making the assignment errors that have been most costly to the Cougars.
UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Utah’s Tyler Huntley both had season-high passing numbers against WSU and the Cougars contested just five balls in those games, often 5-10 yards away from merely being in a position to tip or deflect a pass. It’s hard to say whether WSU needs to change strategy or personnel at this point, but many of the breakdowns have led to explosive pass plays and the Cougars can’t afford too many of those if they want to compete with the league’s best passing offense.
The Utes, by the way, were not supposed to be one of those.
8.2: Here’s a rare example of something the Cougars have done a fine job of during the Pac-12 games, but really struggled with against those first three opponents. The 8.2 represents the number of penalties WSU is committing per game — third-most in the league, behind Arizona (9.0) and Utah (8.8).
Again, WSU has cleaned up its act some in Pac-12 play, only committing 16 in the games against UCLA and Utah. But that’s still good enough for fourth-most in the conference and it represents another area in which the Cougars have regressed since last season, committing 86 penalties in 13 games, or an average of 6.6 per game.
Five of the 16 penalties the last two games can be attributed to a single player, left tackle Liam Ryan, who was flagged four times against Utah and once against UCLA. Ryan committed two false start penalties and one hold on a single drive in the late third and early fourth quarter against the Utes, while Josh Watson and Robert Valencia added two more false start penalties to WSU’s total.
9: The Cougars could still match last year’s sack total, which led the Pac-12 and ranked near the top of the national leaderboard. Only 26 to go...
(Hopefully the sarcasm came through there).
The pass-rush was far from elite in nonconference play, as WSU recorded six sacks against NMSU, UNC and Houston, and the Cougars haven’t posed a real threat in either of the Pac-12 games either, notching just three sacks against the Bruins and the Utes, who aren’t known to be among the conference’s best in pass protection.
WSU has some fiddling to do in the secondary, but it may also need to reconfigure the defensive line, which lost three key pieces from last season — one that most figured would be hard to replace (Logan Tago) and two others that may have been more valuable to the operation than we originally thought (Nick Begg and Taylor Comfort).
39.9: We’ll give Oscar Draguicevich III this much: the junior punter recovered from some early mishaps with two strong punts — a 48-yarder and a 43-yarder — against the Utes, dealing with the same windy, rainy conditions Mazza had to navigate.
But, compared to last season and the lofty standard Draguicevich III set for himself in the offseason, the second-year punter and preseason All-Pac-12 candidate has fallen short thus far and isn’t offering up his best stuff yet.
Draguicevich III, ambitious with his personal goals, told reporters he wants to end the season ranked No. 1 nationally in net punting and every other punting category. Because he’s only punted 11 times, Draguicevich III doesn’t register on the national leaderboard, but if he did his average of 39.9 yards per punt would rank only 85th.
The Cougars are targeting 40 yards per net punt this year and have underachieved there, too, at just 33.6 after five games.