Slumping Cougars anticipate rainy weather, fired-up opponent and hostile crowd at Wazzu
Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall didn’t throw the ball well in wet conditions against Boise State. Will he perform better in the Palouse?
PULLMAN, Washington — Washington State’s coaching situation dominated headlines here and throughout the sports world this week in the run-up to Saturday’s clash of Cougars as BYU and Wazzu will meet for the first time ever at Martin Stadium, and fifth time overall.
Cougars on the air
at Washington State (4-3)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
At Martin Stadium, Spokane, Washington
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: KSL 1160 AM/102.7 FM
Head coach Nick Rolovich and four assistants were fired by WSU for refusing to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Defensive coordinator Jake Dickert, 38, is the interim head coach.
There’s another storyline brewing, however, that could affect the game more than who is coaching from the sidelines.
Cold, rainy weather is expected in the Palouse, a prairie-like area in eastern Washington. Pullman sits 2,352 feet above sea level. Kickoff is at 1:30 p.m. MDT and the game will be televised on Fox Sports 1.
Washington State is accustomed to playing in lousy weather, which could give the Crimson-wearing Cougars an advantage because the last time the blue-wearing Cougars played in the rain — against Boise State on Oct. 9 in Provo — they lost 26-17 and turned the ball over four times.
“It didn’t rain the whole game against Boise,” BYU quarterback Jaren Hall said. “It came on pretty quickly. Regardless, we gotta be prepared to play in the rain, do whatever it takes this week in practice to prepare for that. Because that is how it is going to be.”
Hall struggled a bit when the rain hit at the start of the second quarter against the Broncos, misfiring on a couple of passes before settling down. By the time he threw the interception in the fourth quarter, sunny skies had returned.
“It is a players’ game. These (Washington State) guys are going to be highly motivated and ready to play. … I don’t think the coaching situation really has an impact on the game at all.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick
“Football goes on no matter what the weather is,” Hall said. “So we gotta be prepared to play our game, run the ball, throw the ball, whatever we gotta do. At the end of the day, you just got to get through it and find a way to win.”
Having lost back-to-back games for the first time since late in the 2019 season, BYU (5-2) desperately needs to regain the mojo that carried the Cougars to wins over the Pac-12’s Arizona, Utah and Arizona State in September. Wazzu (4-3) has won three straight, having defeated Pac-12 North foes California, Oregon State and Stanford since falling 24-13 to Utah on Sept. 25.
BYU leads the series 3-1, but none of those games were played in Pullman, surprisingly. BYU is 2-1 vs. the crimson Cougars in Provo and also defeated WSU 38-36 in the 1981 Holiday Bowl.
BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick spent the week reminding players that Pullman “is a tough place to play,” and that they played two of their best games last season “with close to half of our coaching staff not even on the trip” due to COVID-19 restrictions.
He was referring to the 51-17 win at No. 21 Boise State and the 49-23 win over Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl.
“It is a players’ game,” Roderick said. “These guys are going to be highly motivated and ready to play. … I don’t think the coaching situation really has an impact on the game at all.”
But the weather might, especially if BYU is forced to run the football and has the same type of performance on the ground as it had last week at Baylor when it picked up just 67 yards on 24 carries. And 56 of those yards came on one play — Hall’s fourth-down touchdown run.
“Every time I have ever been there the weather has been bad,” said Roderick, who was an assistant coach at Utah from 2005 to 2016. “It has rained every time I have been there except once — it snowed the whole game.”
Hall, whom Roderick said is “playing at a really high level for a guy who has played five games,” said it would be difficult to prepare for a game without coaches, but manageable.
“I am sure they will be ready to go and those guys will be fired up and maybe even have more drive to perform well,” he said. “It is a tough situation, but it definitely still comes down to the players just being prepared and doing their thing.”
Hall said Wednesday night that team morale remains high despite the two losses that basically ensured BYU will be playing in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Dec. 18, instead of a New Year’s Six bowl game.
“There’s still a lot of energy in the building and a lot of excitement to play, and just keep appreciating the game,” he said.
Hall said the Cougars aren’t wearing down after seven straight physical and relatively close games, as some have suggested.
“I think we are good all across the board,” he said, having started the past two games after missing the South Florida and Utah State games due to bruised ribs. “Every team goes through their wear and tear throughout the season. We are going into Week 8, which is usually when you start to see some separation amongst teams, as far as depth goes, and the health of their players.
But everyone has to deal with it. I think we have done a good job up to this point. … We are feeling really good and are excited to get out and play this week.”
Roderick said starting right guard Joe Tukuafu will be back this week, while “there is still a chance” that starting right tackle Harris LaChance could also return because he has been practicing this week. Fullback Masen Wake, whom Roderick says is “basically our sixth offensive lineman,” played against Baylor but isn’t quite back to full strength.
“I expect us to play with a lot of physicality, and I expect Tyler Allgeier to run hard on Saturday, and (Lopini Katoa) as well,” Roderick said of the Cougars’ rushing woes of late. “I expect us to be right back to our old selves. It was a one-game hiccup.”
Defensively, BYU’s biggest issues are on the defensive line, after Lorenzo Fauatea missed the Boise State and Baylor games with an undisclosed injury and Gabe Summers, Jacob Palu and Earl Tuioti-Mariner left the Baylor game with injuries and didn’t return.
The Cougars will have a tough time containing WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura, a one-time BYU recruit from Hawaii who is similar to Hall in that he can run and throw equally well.
“You can tell that guy is a great leader,” Roderick said. “Our coaching staff, we all know that kid from recruiting. He is an awesome leader and an awesome player.”
Roderick said BYU will also face a rowdy crowd similar to what it faced against Utah State in Logan in that 34-20 win.
“They have great fans. Their fans are hostile, but in a good way, the way you would want your home fans to be,” he said. “They get after the opposing team. It is not a huge stadium (capacity: 32,952) but it is loud. Crowd noise is definitely a factor there. … It is a big game. They have won three in a row, and they are feeling good. It is going to be a really fun college football environment.”
Regardless of who is on the sidelines or in the coaching booth.