Here in the college football tomb that the state of Washington has become, my imagination conjures Jimmy Lake and Nick Rolovich each having the Indiana Jones role of out-running the giant round rock bearing down from behind. Not sure whether they’re fast enough, but I’m loading up on popcorn and eager to find out how this movie ends.
It’s safe to say that never have the state’s premier programs started so perilously, simultaneously.
On the same Saturday night, the Washington Huskies and the Washington State Cougars lost, piteously and hideously, to big underdog opponents. Circumstances were different, but the outcome is a shared one: A hugely unexpected 0-1 start that has appalled their fan bases, the Pac-12 Conference and the college football nation at large.
The Cougars followed Washington’s 13-7 home shaming at the hands of 22-point underdog Montana with 26-23 home loss to 17-point underdog Utah State, a Mountain West Conference team coming off a 1-5 nonconference season with a new coach and new quarterback.
The failures in each rested in remarkably poor coaching.
Ahead 20-11 in the third quarter, Rolovich pulled an improving QB Jayden de Laura at the Utah State 2-yard line and inserted third-stringer Cammon Cooper for a short-yardage specialty series that failed, forcing WSU to settle for a field goal instead of the likely TD and PAT. They lost by three.
The blunder followed Rolovich’s controversies over being apparently the only coach in FBS who has refused to get a COVID-19 vaccine, and a federal lawsuit filed by fired former Cougars WR Kassidy Woods, accusing the coach and the school of breach of contract, violating his civil rights and covering up COVID-19 cases.
It’s never an easy gig to win in Pullman. But Rolovich’s penchant for self-destruction is zero help, and will require military-grade goggles to watch even from Seattle.
The Huskies’ failures were confined to the field, but no less damaging to UW’s prestige, recruiting reputation and Lake’s ability as a first-time head coach to manage problems. A ranked FBS team losing to a BCS school is rare; the game-long inability to work out a solution is nearly unheard of.
Lake showed up to his weekly Monday presser full of rehearsed contrition, repeatedly accepting full responsibility for the debacle, including astonishing inability to engineer another score after the 78-yard touchdown drive on the opening possession.
“I think we were expecting more of the same, and for that not to happen was unfortunate,” he said. “That’s what we’re here to fix. It starts with coaches. We’ve got to coach better. Once we coach better, our players have to play better. It starts with me first. We’ve got to give these guys a good plan to go out there and execute.
“We know (opponents) are going to change it up, and when they change it up, we’ve got to be ready to have that next response ready.”
Montana’s defense quickly recognized that Washington began without its three top receivers, and lost a fourth, freshman Ja’Lynn Polk, on the opening scrimmage play. The Grizzlies overloaded to stop Washington’s running game and knew QB Dylan Morris didn’t have the receivers to go deep.
“Dylan, he got hit a lot,” Lake said. “Our quarterback cannot get hit that much. He got hit a ton. They called the penalties (on Montana), but that takes a toll on him being able to set his feet in the pocket to successfully deliver a throw. “
Lake began the session with serious injury news: Polk, a highly regarded redshirt freshman transfer from Texas Tech, had emergency surgery Saturday night for a “chest injury” that Lake didn’t further explain. He did say Polk, hurt after his lone reception, was out for the regular season.
Also missing were receivers Terrell Bynum, Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze, with unspecified injuries from fall training. Lake said the trio was week-to-week to return.
That figures to make a bad situation worse — playing Michigan at 5 p.m. Saturday in Ann Arbor’s Big House that holds 106,000. The game for a couple of years has been seen as a benchmark opportunity for Washington, and by extension the Pac-12, to gain some national stature. Given Saturday’s outcomes — the Wolverines mauled on schedule their weaker opponent, Western Michigan, 47-14 — merely getting back to Seattle by other than emergency medical transportation would be a feat.
It’s possible that Lake might have some soaring words for the Huskies. But the gravitational pull of such a profound defeat — UW beat Montana 63-7 in 2017 — is likely not to allow anything to leave the ground. Besides the consequences to a 2021 season that had been expected to be aided by the return of fans to Husky Stadium, the damage to the credibility of a young, first-time coach figures to be significant.
Since the four-game season in 2020 ended in a COVID-19 outbreak that denied UW a berth in the Pac-12 title game, Lake has talked a strong game about Washington having the resources, tradition, prestige and talent to be a perennial conference title contender and part of the CFP discussion.
But now all anyone can talk about is the steaming crater in Montlake.
“Fans should be pissed, they should be upset, they should be frustrated, disappointed,” Lake said. “It’s up to us, starting with me, to correct that.”
At least Rolovich and the Cougs draw at home Portland State Saturday. Except, well . . . the Big Sky Conference Vikings beat the Cougars in 2015, 24-17.
There’s at least a decent shot at an Evergreen State 0-for-4 start.
Don’t look back. The rock is gaining.