Second-half meltdown derails WSU in San Diego

IT FELT A LOT like 2005. Just when Washington State gained enough momentum to make an upset look feasible, it squandered it through a series of mistakes en route to a 42-24 loss Saturday at San Diego State. And if the Cougars, similar to their squad six years ago, narrowly miss becoming bowl eligible, this will be a game they remember.

WSU (2-1) appeared in great shape when senior quarterback Marshall Lobbestael found sophomore wide receiver Marquess Wilson for a 78-yard touchdown pass to give the Cougars a 24-14 lead early in the third quarter.

And when WSU held the Aztecs (3-0) to a three-and-out on the ensuing series, it was easy to envision taking a three-score lead that might have been insurmountable. After all, Wilson, who 236 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions, once again showed he is the most explosive receiver to don crimson and gray since Jason Hill headed to the NFL after scoring 32 touchdowns for the Cougars.

That might have been the storyline -- until it all unraveled.

On fourth down, sophomore Bennett Bontemps ran into punter Brian Stahovich. First down, Aztecs.

"That was unfortunate because I thought we had control of the game at that point," WSU coach Paul Wulff said during a postgame radio interview. "That's something we'll clean up. That will never happen again."

At that point, it might as well have been a rerun of '05 games. Think Oregon State. Or California. Or Arizona State. Or seemingly just about any game that featured a second-half meltdown. The only difference was those all were conference games, while this one just featured nonconference opponent SDSU, which earned its first win against a Pac-12 opponent since it defeated it defeated California 33-9 on Sept. 2, 1995. That ended a 19-game losing streak against Pac-12 teams.

The Cougars' last nonconference road win was 55-21 on Sept. 17, 2005, at Nevada.

After the penalty, the Aztecs scored 28 unanswered points. Quarterback Ryan Lindley, who completed 21 of 37 passes for 273 yards, twice found Gavin Escobar for touchdown passes, while running back Ronnie Hillman scored on 1- and 59-yard runs.

WSU'S DEFENSE, which received its first test against an offense that returned most of its starters off a nine-win team, struggled. In a theme that has become familiar during the last several seasons, the Cougars struggled to stop the run. Hillman finished with 191 yards and four touchdowns on 32 carries. SDSU had 500 yards of total offense.

But blaming the defense for the loss would be disingenuous. Even though Lobbestael threw for 368 yards, he completed just 20 of 42 passes and was intercepted twice.

Lobbestael showed that he can be successful against a Football Championship Subdivision team (Idaho State) and a lower-tier Mountain West squad (Nevada-Las Vegas), but has not distinguished himself against better competition. The absence of junior Jeff Tuel, who broke his left clavicle Sept. 3 against ISU, was felt.

In addition to his two interceptions, Lobbestael also lost a fumble at the Aztecs' 25-yard line with the Cougars trailing 28-24.

"It's pretty tough to go on the road, turn it over four times and win," said Wulff, whose team also was assessed with three chop-block penalties in the fourth quarter.

After forcing a punt on SDSU's first drive, Lobbestael needed just one play to find sophomore Wilson for an 80-yard touchdown. It marked the Cougars' longest play from scrimmage this season. Wilson's receiving yardage was the most since Hill had 240 against California in 2005 and was the fifth greatest total in program history.

"We just saw it as man coverage and I was able to beat the defensive back with my speed," Wilson said. "I just ran away from him."

The Aztecs were not quite as explosive early, but just as effective. They responded with a six-play drive that culminated with a 13-yard touchdown run by Ronnie Hillman.

Both teams followed with first-quarter scoring drives as WSU sophomore Andrew Furney converted a 48-yard field goal, while Hillman finished a 13-play drive with a 12-yard run to give SDSU a 14-10 advantage entering the second quarter. It marked the Cougars' first deficit of the season.

Neither offense was as efficient during the second quarter. Lobbestael scrambled for an 11-yard gain, but his fumble was recovered by Rene Siluano. Two plays later, Lindley was intercepted by sophomore safety Deone Bucannon.

Lobbestael took advantage as he drove WSU from its own 12-yard line with a 10-play drive that culminated with 23-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Isiah Barton to give the Cougars a 17-14 lead.

WSU's offense stagnated from there and the Aztecs appeared on the verge of at least tying the game midway through the quarter when Lindley's third-down fumble was recovered by sophomore defensive end Jordan Pu'u-Robinson at the Cougars' 19.

But SDSU made fewer mistakes than WSU.

Wulff said his team will work throughout the bye week to avoid another meltdown before it opens conference play Oct. 1 at Colorado (1-2).

"We've got to go back, look at this game and dissect it," he said. "There's definitely some things to clean up -- and we will. It's a growing process.

"We've got to flush this thing within 24 hours and move on."

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME: Sophomore Bennett Bontemps ran into SDSU punter Brian Stahovich in the third quarter with the Cougars holding a 10-point lead.

CATCH OF THE GAME: Marquess Wilson caught an 80-yard touchdown pass on WSU's first play from scrimmage.

STAT OF THE GAME: Wilson had 236 receiving yards, which was fifth most in program history.

MISLEADING STAT OF THE GAME: Marshall Lobbestael had 368 passing yards, but that total grossly was inflated by 80- and 78-yard touchdown receptions by Wilson.

LEADING TACKLERS: Linebackers Sekope Kaufusi and C.J. Mizell and safety Deone Bucannon each had eight tackles. Safety Tyree Toomer added seven more.

NEXT GAME: The Cougars open Pac-12 play Oct. 1 at Colorado.

Cougfan Top Stories