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Utah and WSU have both struggled in 2021, but here is why the Utes are wary of the Cougars

Washington State has shown flashes before fading, and has one of the most dynamic players in the nation

Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura hands the ball off to running back Max Borghi during game against Portland State, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. Borghi is the only player in the nation named to the Doak Walker Award (top college running back) and Biletnikoff Award (top college wide receiver) preseason watchlists.
Young Kwak, Associated Press

In Utah’s final game of the truncated, bizarre COVID-19 2020 season on Dec. 19, it staged a memorable comeback.

The Utes, behind unheralded senior quarterback Drew Lisk, who replaced starter Jake Bentley, rallied to outscore Washington State 38-0 in the second half to claim a 45-28 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“By the looks of the first half, you would have thought we had opted out of that half and the bowl game,” coach Kyle Whittingham joked after the game. “We woke up in the second half, I guess you could say, and just made play after play after play. It snowballed.”

Turns out, that wasn’t an isolated incident for Washington State.

Last Saturday in Pullman, Washington, the Cougars led 14-0 against USC — which was playing with an interim head coach days after the firing of Clay Helton — before the Trojans roared back to outscore WSU 38-0 in the second half in a 45-14 setback.

“They were up 14-0 with an opportunity to go up 21-0 and then everything started to turn,” Whittingham said Monday. “They ended up getting beat handily. But they played well for a quarter-and-a-half. USC surged back and took control of the game.”

Both Utah and Washington State are struggling as they meet again Saturday (12:30 p.m., MDT, Pac-12 Network) at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

No doubt, the Utes (1-2, 0-0) have their issues. They’ve lost two straight games and their starting quarterback Charlie Brewer left the program this week.

The Cougars (1-2, 0-1), meanwhile, are dealing with plenty of problems of their own.

Under second-year coach Nick Rolovich, a troubling trend has emerged: WSU has blown leads in four games.

Last season, the Cougars collapsed against Utah and they led Oregon 19-7 before falling 43-29. In this season’s opener, WSU led Utah State 23-11 before losing 26-23. Then came the meltdown against USC.

Meanwhile, Washington State has some uncertainty at quarterback.

Sophomore quarterback Jayden de Laura suffered a leg injury late in the second quarter last week. He left the game before coming back for a few plays and returning to the sideline again.

In the first half, de Laura, a Honolulu native, completed 10 of 16 passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns before his injury.

“I thought he was playing the best football that I’ve seen (since) I’ve been with him,” Rolovich said. “I thought he was in great command. I think he’s very energizing to the team.”

Victor Gabalis replaced de Laura, but the Cougars’ run-and-shoot offensive attack stalled. De Laura returned to the game but he threw an interception and then had some incompletions before being removed from the game again.

If de Laura can’t play Saturday, WSU could go with Gabalis, Tennessee grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano or Lehi High product Cammon Cooper.

Late in the USC game, when the outcome had already been decided, Cooper was 4 of 5 for 44 yards and an interception.

Besides quarterback, one player that has Utah’s attention is running back Max Borghi.

The 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior running back played in only one game last year — the one at Utah — because he was injured most of the season.

Borghi is the only player in the nation named to the Doak Walker Award (top college running back) and Biletnikoff Award (top college wide receiver) preseason watchlists. He was also named to the preseason All-Pac-12 first team.

This season, Borghi has rushed 37 times for 217 yards and two touchdowns and he’s caught three passes for 51 yards.

“He’s a versatile back. He’s got good size, good speed, he’s very versatile. He’ll be used a lot in that offense,” said Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd. “Washington State is running the ball more so he’ll get more touches. It’s going to be an exciting challenge.”

Both Utah and WSU will be looking for their first Pac-12 win, and first FBS victory, of the season. The Utes and Cougars have won only one game overall so far.

WSU beat FCS opponent Portland State while Utah’s victory came in the season-opener against FCS foe Weber State.