In this one, first-year Washington State coach Nick Rolovich wants his veteran players to set the tone — the ones who have no reason to idealize the 11th-ranked and always resplendent Oregon Ducks.
“It’s very interesting, because the players on the team, especially the older players — they’ve had some success versus Oregon,” Rolovich said this week. “It’s probably more on the coaches to get over the Oregon flash factor.”
The Cougars and Ducks take 1-0 records into a game at 4:10 p.m. today at Martin Stadium in Pullman, as WSU makes its home debut in a pandemic-rocked football season in which no spectators are being allowed in Pac-12 venues. Wazzu also is disallowing tailgating.
The Ducks are favored by 10 1/2 points in a game that will be televised nationally on Fox, but Cougar Nation vividly remembers its recent four sconsecutive wins in the series, followed by a dramatic game last year in Eugene, Ore., in which the Cougs conjured a touchdown with a minute remaining to take a one-point lead.
Oregon — ranked No. 11 in that game as well — then kicked a 26-yard field goal as time expired to win 37-35. But considering the other six visitors to Autzen Stadium in 2019 lost by an average of 33 points, the Cougs felt pretty good about that performance.
Now their elder statesmen will try to spread those positive vibes to the newbies, such as true freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura.
“Leaning on some of our older players and how they’re approaching it — that’s the mindset we’re all trying to take,” Rolovich said. “That gives us, I think, an opportunity to start the game off at least with a mindset where you don’t look at yourself as inferior.”
Cougars junior receiver Jamire Calvin missed last season with an injury, so he’s never lost to the Ducks. The last time he played them, the Cougs triumphed 34-20 two years ago in a Martin Stadium electrified by ESPN GameDay.
“Honestly, I just think it’s one of these things in football where you end up matching up with one team really well, or a couple of teams really well,” Calvin said. “And I feel that’s what we do with Oregon. We match up really well with them and we always seem to play hard and usually come out victorious.”
The matchup theory is compelling, because the Cougars of recent years haven’t fared as well against another Pacific Northwest adversary of similar caliber, Washington, which has won seven straight Apple Cup games.
Wazzu’s four-game winning streak against Oregon came against three coaches. It began in 2015 with a rollicking 45-38 double-overtime win against Mark Helfrich’s Ducks in Eugene. Then it gained momentum when the Ducks abruptly slid into the mediocrity the next season and lost 51-33 in Pullman.
Helfrich was fired at season’s end and the Ducks improved the next year under single-season coach Willie Taggart. But they looked lifeless in a 33-10 loss in Eugene to a WSU team that stayed undefeated in six games.
Mario Cristobal, hired by oregon in 2018, has placed a priority on toughening the Ducks’ psyche, and he’d like to think last year’s heart-stopping win against the Cougs has changed the dynamic of the series.
Now the Cougars, too, have a new coach. In Rolovich’s debut last week, they impressively ignored the fact they were three-point underdogs and won 38-28 at Oregon State. De Laura looking nothing like a true freshman and the Wazzu defense looked nothing like its self-doubting 2019 self.
But can the Cougars, amid these changes, still hope to match up with well with Oregon Xs and Os? For one thing, there’s no guarantee Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense will prosper against the Ducks as well as Mike Leach’s Air Raid did.
But Rolo is hoping the Ducks’ sartorial splendor, for one thing, is less likely to dazzle the Cougars than some of their other opponents.
“This is a new deal, we’ve got a new staff,” he said. “But ... our guys — they’re already past the uniforms and helmets, right? They’ve seen that, they’ve done that. They’ve played, they’ve had success.
“Last year was a tough game for them,” he allowed. But the Cougs’ recent success against Oregon “gives you at least a higher starting point.”
Dale Grummert may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2290.