Schoeler: Cougar Football Lessons Learned in 2020

Nick Rolovich’s first-year turnaround was compounded by injuries and the pandemic

Posted on January 7, 2021

  By Cody Schoeler, SuperWest Sports

It was a challenging, up-and-down season for the Washington State football, given the pandemic, a coaching change, and key injuries, but the Cougars figure to emerge stronger for it come 2021. Below I look at some of the lessons learned in 2020.


1. They are, in fact, in a rebuild

After the first few weeks of the season, the Cougars had some fans convinced that they may be ahead of schedule and ready to compete immediately.

That idea came crashing down courtesy of four first-quarter touchdowns from the USC Trojans. After missing two games due to COVID-19 protocols, WSU had a chance to make a statement against USC, but did not live up to the moment.


New head coach Nick Rolovich had a tough task ahead of him, taking over a Cougar team that finished 2019 with a record of 6-7, and was going to have a new quarterback under center. Not to mention the whole national pandemic going on at the same time.

Ending the 2020 season with a 1-3 record is not the best way for Rolovich to begin his tenure in Pullman, but this was bound to happen. Mike Leach did not have a winning record until his fourth season, so it is not like Rolovich was going to make this into a Top 25 team immediately.

There were more important things for the new head coach to accomplish this season. Establishing a culture for the program, winning over the players and fanbase, and showing he could compete in a power five conference were all things that Rolovich checked off his Year One bucket list.

2. The quarterback position is wide open

Jayden de Laura did admirably in what must have been a very difficult season for him. Being a true freshman thrust into a starting position under the circumstances in a pandemic was not an easy task.

He started out on fire, winning his first collegiate game and then following that up with an impressive performance against Oregon.

de Laura

The freshman sensation came back to earth in the following two games. He made more mistakes than the previous games and was unable to get the offense rolling in big moments.

This is not an indictment of de Laura, but he does not have a stranglehold on the job heading in to 2021. That does not mean he cannot win the job again, but it does mean that he will have to win another quarterback competition.

If de Laura had continued to play at the same level as the first two weeks, the job would be his to lose in the next year.

As it stands, the position is once again up for grabs. Between de Laura, Cammon Cooper, Gunner Cruz, and incoming freshman Xavier Ward, there are plenty of options for Rolovich to go to for the first snaps of 2021.


3. Dickert did his job and did it well

This team is still not the Steel Curtain or the Legion of Boom, but the defense showed the first signs of a massive improvement under new defensive coordinator Jake Dickert.

It is hard to judge this based off numbers because the Cougars only played four games, but the defense looked like a better unit than the previous year.


The biggest improvement came in the run defense. That is the area that Dickert’s previous unit at Wyoming succeeded. WSU improved from 185 rushing yards allowed per game to 154 in Year One under Dickert.

The WSU rush defense was the fourth-best in the conference, and they did so with half of their games coming against Top Five rushing offenses in the conference.

The defensive rebuild is still far from complete. The pass defense is still a huge problem; it gave up over 300 yards per game in 2020.

There were some promising steps made despite struggling against the pass. The defensive line seemed to generate more pressure and some playmakers in the secondary have emerged.

Dickert was not expected to turn this defense around immediately, but he exceeded a lot of expectations with the progress he was able to make in just four games in year one.

4. The backfield is in very good hands

WSU fans would not have been excited if they knew star running back Max Borghi was only going to play one game in 2020.

On the other hand, they would have been ecstatic to learn the team would still rush for nearly 130 yards per game. That may not sound like much but after gaining just 68 yards per game on the ground last season, it is kind of a big deal.


The biggest revelation for the Cougars this season was Deon McIntosh. He stepped up in a big way, filling in for Borghi and proving that he is also a top back in the Conference.

He was a largely unknown player after racking up just 224 total yards in nine games in 2019, but he had a breakout season in 2020 to the tune of 353 total yards in just four games.

Both players are likely to be back in crimson and gray next season (Borghi has yet to announce whether he will return or head to the NFL). If that happens, there would be no doubt that the Cougars would field the best running back duo in the Pac-12.

You can watch Schoeler’s Cougar Dash Sports Talk Shows on Dash Sports TV, and read his other sports articles at the Daily Evergreen.

—More from Cody Schoeler—