Poor tackling, fumble fingers equal WSU loss

PULLMAN -- Game predictions were high. Expectations for the Mike Leach's 2015 season, his fourth at Washington State were even higher. Those were all left to smolder in what became a dumpster fire Saturday at Martin Stadium when the Cougars blew a 10-point halftime lead and lost to FCS Portland State 24-17.

It was a game where fans at rain-splashed Martin Stadium had hoped to see Alex Grinch's new, aggressive defense, a more confident Luke Falk and improved special teams. Instead, the crimson-and-gray crowd walked away wondering what they just saw.

Let’s start with the defense. Grinch's new D came out energetic, flying around and ready to hit somebody. The defense looked like a real Cougar, but became a mere house cat after halftime. Each time you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. The only players who seemed to have a grip or a hit on the Viking ball carriers were Jeremiah Allison, Peyton Pelluer, Taylor Taliulu and Shalom Luani.

“We have to go back to practice, watch the film and make corrections,” Allison said. “We had a good week of preparation – a good fall camp. We just have to execute.

“Coach Leach says he wants to win the first drive of the first quarter and the first drive of the third quarter,” Allison said.

The Cougars flunked that mission. The defense made it look like the PSU players were covered in Vaseline. Rain probably affected some grip, but there were so many missed tackles I lost count. When the Cougars did get tackles, they were loud and big smacks from players like Luani.

“We tried to make too much happen,” Leach said.

Portland State utilized two quarterbacks who just ran rampant against the Cougars. Vikings starter Alex Kuresa ran for 92 yards, while backup Paris Penn had 57 rushing yards.

“We prepared for [multiple quarterbacks]. They played really well,” Allison said. “Hats off to the coach, he came in with a good game plan. We just have to be better.”

Leach didn’t see anything fancy from PSU, just lack of tackling from his defense.

“I don’t think they did anything tricky, we just couldn’t tackle their quarterback. We just didn’t tackle well,” Leach said.

Enough about the defense. Let's try for a positive. Falk had a decent game from a statistics perspective. He competed 27 of 41 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns. Now tell those stats to shove it. They don't tell the whole story. Falk had all day on some passes, but just couldn’t connect. Dom Williams had at least two passes slip through his fingers.

“We never got into a rhythm on offense,” Leach said. “We haven’t had a practice that was worse than that game.”

Falk did a good job recognizing issues and attempting to make plays, but at times his receivers let him down, and on other plays he let himself down. However, with the game on the line and a fourth-and-3 staring him in the face, Falk took matters into his own hands. Unable to find an open receiver, Falk took off, leaping for a first down. While in mid-air, though, Falk took a helmet to the hip and came down on his head and shoulder. Falk had to be taken out of the game. Peyton Bender entered, only to throw the game-ending interception a few plays later.

“He is 100 percent healthy, like virtually all our guys,” Leach said of Falk.

As for special teams, after writing during preseason camp that special teams would be much improved, I was partially wrong. The poor conditions really hindered the “third phase in football.” Kyrin Priester (pictured above) fumbled a punt at the 11-yard line to begin the fourth, giving PSU a chance to take the lead. Erik Powell had a kick blocked after a high snap delayed his run to kick.

The bright spot, if there was one, was Tavares Martin Jr. running back a kickoff to the WSU 39 before being dragged down by a face mask. Martin Jr. had a lane, but Marcus Kinsella saved the day for PSU with his finger tips intertwined in the WSU return man's face mask.

It will be a while under the Cougars can extinguish their season-opening dumpster fire, but they get a chance to start next Saturday when WSU plays Rutgers in New Jersey.

  • This was Portland State's first win over a Pac-12 program. Official attendance was 24,302.

  • The defense had three sacks, one each from Destiny Vaeao, Kache Palacio and Darryl Paulo.

  • Eleven different Cougars caught a pass against PSU.

  • Fifteen players made their WSU debut: Luani (S), Lucas Gravelle (LS), Kaleb Fossum (Holder), Martin Jr. (WR/KR), Priester (WR/PR), Darrien Molton (CB), Hercules Mata’afa (DL), Chandler Leniu (LB), Logan Tago (LB), Aaron Porter (LB), Cody O’Connell (OL), Nate DeRider (LB), Keith Harrington (RB), Zach Charme (P), Peyton Bender (QB).

  • Players making their first career start: Gerard Wicks, Luani, Isaac Dotson, Molton, Ivan McLennan.

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