Plenty to like about Cougs’ win

IT ALWAYS IS BEST to have a healthy amount of skepticism when it comes to making grandiose proclamations about a victory against a Football Championship Subdivison opponent. And Washington State made its share of mistakes during Saturday’s 59-21 win in a nonconference win against Portland State at Martin Stadium. But there also was a lot to like about the Cougars’ first win of the season.

WSU coach Mike Leach often has been been called out on CF.C’s message boards for his refusal to run the ball. The Vikings even challenged them to do it early by using just six defenders in the box. It was a challenge the Cougars accepted as they used a blend of the run and pass to build a 14-play drive that culminated with a 1-yard touchdown run by redshirt freshman Gerard Wicks with 2 minutes, 5 seconds, remaining in the first quarter. It was WSU’s first rushing touchdown of the season.

To describe the Cougars’ running statistics as impressive would be disingenuous. Wicks and Jamal Morrow combined for a steady but unspectacular 88 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Their ability to run the ball forced PSU defenders to respect that element of the offense, though.

“During practice we put a point of emphasis on running the ball,” Morrow said during a postgame radio interview. “We knew we could do it.”

And once that happened, it appeared that WSU’s offense could only be stopped by, well, WSU. A cursory look at the statistics tells the story. The Cougars produced a school-record 706 yards of total offense. Senior quarterback Connor Halliday completed 41 of 62 passes for 544 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. He threw touchdown passes to four different players.

None of them were more impressive than senior Isiah Myers, who had a career-high 227 yards and three touchdowns on 11 receptions. Myers, whose ascension as a senior could enable the team to redshirt last year’s leading receiver, junior Gabe Marks, continued his breakout season. Myers’ final touchdown, where corralled the ball over a PSU defender before running untouched to the end zone, was his most impressive.

“(Strength coach Jason) Loscalzo has been preaching to me to be more consistent,” said Myers, who had just 35 receptions last year. “I kind of took it to heart because I obviously have not been that consistent since I’ve been here.”

Myers was among eight offensive players with a play from scrimmage that went for more than 10 yards. Those moments helped a defense that forced turnovers, but displayed some of the same issues that resulted in the season-opening 41-38 loss against Rutgers at CenturyLink Field. None were more significant than redshirt freshman safety Darius Lemora’s hit on Shaq Richard that junior defensive lineman Destiny Vaeao recovered at the WSU’s 7-yard line. The Cougars translated that play — and redshirt freshman cornerback Charleston White’s interception in the end zone during the second quarter — into touchdowns.

But the defense also blew coverages. If Kieran McDonagh’s pass attempt to Paris Penn had not sailed just a couple of feet too far, WSU would have allowed a touchdown on the opponent’s first play for the second time in three weeks. The Cougars’ defensive line also was pushed around by PSU a few too many times. The most notable might have been a third quarter 14-yard run by Richard, where the Vikings’ offensive line opened a boulder-sized hole. WSU called a timeout immediately following that play, but it did not matter as McDonagh’s pass to Alex Toureen beat White for a 24-yard touchdown that cut the Cougars’ lead to 28-14 with 8:16 remaining in the third quarter.

The outcome was different. The narrative was not.

Simply put, WSU’s offense needs to produce for the Cougars to have any chance at success this season. While their execution was not precise — there were too many drops, including one in the second quarter in the end zone, along with Halliday’s two interceptions — it was much better than the first two weeks of the season. In the red zone, a trouble spot in each of Leach’s three seasons with the Cougars, WSU converted on all seven opportunities. The Cougars also responded to brief adversity in the third quarter by scoring 31 unanswered points.

“This is his best game as far as going through reads, going through the offense and distributing the ball,” Leach said of Halliday.

The blowout also enabled redshirt freshman signal-caller Luke Falk to see his first game action. On his second throw, he hurled a perfectly placed ball into Dom Williams' hands for an 84-yard touchdown and the game’s final score.

“Basically, is this real life right now?” said Falk, when asked about his feelings on the play. “It probably was the greatest feeling in my life.”

Others had that same feeling in 2008 when WSU defeated the Vikings 48-9 — one of the few highlights during arguably the worst season in program history. About the only common element between PSU and next Saturday’s opponent at Martin Stadium, second-ranked Oregon, is that both universities are located in the same state. But Leach believes there is one tangible element his team can take from defeating the Vikings as they enter Pac-12 play.

“The biggest thing for us is not to focus on the big thing,” Leach said. “Don’t spare anything as far as getting the most out of a play. I think that allowed us to play like we practice.”

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