At the end of his first season at Washington State, Nick Rolovich wanted his team to take a long, hard look inward. He wanted his players to confront the fact that they had gone 1-3. That they had blown leads. That they needed to fight harder and finish games.
So Rolovich pulled up ESPN’s win probability index chart from the Dec. 19 game against Utah. Washington State led by 21 at halftime, but the Utes scored 38 unanswered points in the second half to win 45-28. At the start of the third quarter, ESPN projected that the Cougars had a 95.4 percent chance of winning the game.
“I took a screenshot of that and put it all over the building so they had to see it,” Rolovich said. “I also printed out a screenshot from when Justin Wilcox texted me before the Cal game saying, ‘We’ve got a problem, I’ll hit you in a minute.’
“(Those two screenshots) show a combination of being grateful for every opportunity we do get to play — and facing the reality that we have shown people who we are. That doesn’t mean it’s who we have to continue to be, but let’s be honest about our perception right now.”
Rolovich doesn’t consider his first year in Pullman a throwaway year, despite all the challenges that came with a coaching staff trying to acclimate during a pandemic and the Pac-12 initially postponing its season before reversing course for an abbreviated slate. Washington State was one of three Pac-12 teams that only got four games in. The Cougars’ game against Cal on Dec. 12 was canceled less than two hours before kickoff, which prompted the text from Wilcox. Nothing about the 2020 season came easy for anyone, but it was particularly tough for coaches who were simply trying to get to know the players they inherited and vice versa.
Washington State has lost 16 players to the transfer portal since the cycle began at the start of October, but the coaching staff does not view the exodus as a negative.
“Going through last season as far as growing together, our personality as a team was: When things are going well, we’re very fun to be around. When things got tough, there was a lack of people who would stand up and fight their way out of it,” Rolovich said. “That was a little bit of our message going into spring ball, and we had incredible energy in spring ball.
“We had a tremendous amount of attrition. But our locker room is in a much healthier place.”
The four-game sample can be hard to extrapolate from, but the Cougars should be stronger at running back with the return of a healthy Max Borghi, more consistent in the passing game with an intriguing QB competition still in progress and more comfortable on the defensive side of the ball after a complete do-over with the new staff. Linebacker Jahad Woods should have an all-conference type of season to anchor the defense. If the experienced players on this roster stay healthy and the youngest grow up fast, this program can take a significant step forward in Year 2.