Cougars win 24-20 in maddening fashion

WHILE THE OUTCOME was much more favorable for Washington State, the feeling from the Cougars' 24-20 win Saturday against Eastern Washington before a sold out Martin Stadium remains similar. Simply put, WSU made far too many mistakes, which turned a potential blowout into a far-too-close outcome.

There might not have been a better example of WSU's inconsistency than its final offensive drive. The Cougars twice appeared to secure the victory when Leon Brooks rushed for a 47-yard touchdown and Marquess Wilson raced for another on a pass by Connor Halliday, who replaced an injured Jeff Tuel early in the fourth quarter. Tuel said in a postgame radio interview that he "feels great."

Both of those scores were negated by holding penalties on John Fullington and Elliott Bosch, respectively. Instead, WSU was forced to punt.

"I thought we had a lot of chances to put it away," WSU coach Mike Leach said. "We're just kind of big splatters as a team. We let penalties and a turnover keep us out of the end zone.

"Our offensive line has got to be tougher. This business of letting your technique breakdown – that's got to go."

That left quarterback Kyle Padron one final opportunity, but his Hail Mary from the Cougars' 32-yard line was knocked down in the end zone. Padron's team was thrust into the position of needing a touchdown because defensive lineman Toni Pole blocked Jimmy Pavel's extra point after Brandon Kaufman's 17-yard touchdown reception on the previous drive.

While it seems bizarre to suggest the close outcome was surprising for WSU (1-1), given that the Cougars were outgained 469 to 355, it was. The Eagles (1-1) trailed by 10 points entering the fourth quarter and WSU appeared in great shape when Halliday drove the offense down to EWU's 37. But Halliday, who was looking for freshman Dominique Williams, was intercepted by T.J. Lee III.

The Cougars had an even better opportunity to secure a victory on their ensuing drive, but squandered that when freshman Teondray Caldwell fumbled at the Eagles' 1. Linebacker Zach Johnson forced the fumble and it was recovered by Allen Brown.

In addition to those errors, kicker Andrew Furney, who was mobbed by teammates after making a 60-yard field goal to give WSU a 24-14 halftime advantage, missed from 40 yards in third quarter. Furney's field goal was the second longest in program history behind Jason Hanson's 62-yarder in 1991 against UNLV.

"(David Gilbertson) had a great hold," Furney said. "It felt great when I hit it. When I looked up, I said, ‘Holy crap, this actually has a chance of going in.' "

WHILE THE COUGARS managed to survive EWU, these were the kinds of missed opportunities against teams, such as UCLA and Utah, last season that left WSU with a 4-8 record instead of being bowl eligible.

Those are mistakes that need to be addressed quickly as the Cougars only have one nonconference game remaining Friday at UNLV. But Leach also had some surprises that net positive results.

Air Raid? Try ground attack.

After the Cougars were held to negative-5 rushing yards during last week's 30-6 loss, Leach seemed determined to prove they could move the ball on the ground. WSU rushed for 108 yards.

"We have some good running backs on this team," said junior running back Carl Winston, who had a team-high 67 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. "We all have something we can bring. If you want to bring five in the box, we'll make you pay for it."

That was not the only surprise. Even more crucial might have been the play of a defense that was much maligned before the season. While the offense struggled to gain much consistency – and made multiple costly mistakes – the defense looked strong outside of a couple of drives.

It was all part of defensive coordinator Mike Breske's high-stakes defensive scheme. There were times where it looked awful, such as when Kaufman burned Nolan Washington for a 93-yard touchdown on third-and-10 to tie the game, 7-all, during the first quarter. Safety Deone Bucannon also had an ill-advised helmet hit on EWU receiver Greg Herd that drew a personal foul in the fourth quarter.

But along with some of the explosive plays the Cougars surrendered, they also made some big plays. None were more significant than sophomore linebacker Cyrus Coen's interception of Padron, who completed 26 of 54 passes for 379 yards. Coen returned Padron's interception to the Eagles' 16. On the ensuing play, Tuel found sophomore wide receiver Isiah Myers for a touchdown.

Myers, who also had a 2-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter, had a team-high six receptions for 59 yards. WSU radio color commentator Shawn McWashington called him the Cougars' player of the game for his toughness.

"He really came through and made some big plays," McWashington said.

The consistency never was there, though. WSU moved the ball, but struggled on third down under both Tuel and Halliday, who completed 5 of 11 passes for 75 yards. Leach did not clarify Tuel's status afterward saying only "we'll see" whether he or Halliday starts next week. Tuel completed 20 of 26 passes for 171 yards.

Leach said he continues to examine both signal-callers.

"Connor was pretty steady other than the interception," he said, adding that Tuel was inconsistent. "He did create a bit of a spark out there."

Overall, Leach said he is looking for more consistency in all facets. After all, the Cougars only converted 6 of 15 third downs.

"We're going to have to do a better job on third down in future games to keep the ball moving," McWashington said.

But most importantly, none of those factors will result in a negative memory for WSU.

"At the end of the season, they don't have to look back at it," McWashington said. "They won and that's all that counts."

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME: Coen's interception, which resulted in Myers' touchdown reception on the ensuing play, gave the Cougars a 21-14 lead in the second quarter.

CATCH OF THE GAME: Myers' 17-yard reception in the back of the end zone gave WSU the lead for good.

STAT OF THE GAME: WSU was penalized eight times for 75 yards. None were more significant than two holding penalties that negated touchdowns on the same drive late in the game.

MISLEADING STAT OF THE GAME: The Cougars surrendered 469 yards of total offense, but 93 came on Kaufman's first-quarter touchdown.

LEADING TACKLERS: Safeties Taylor Taliulu and Bucannon each had seven stops.

NEXT GAME: The Cougars wrap up nonconference play Friday at UNLV.

Cougfan Top Stories