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Cougars QB Tyler Hilinski looks good running the ball, but passes off target as focus shifts to Crimson and Grey game

PULLMAN — In the Cougars’ last practice before the Crimson and Gray game, an under-the-weather Mike Leach led a short afternoon practice Thursday with his players in only half-pads.

The result was an initially casual practice that gradually grew in intensity — and ended up a victory for the Cougars’ defense, at least against the WSU passing game as everyone now sets sights for the intrasquad game Saturday in Spokane.

Junior linebacker Kingston Fernandez (6-foot-2, 262 pounds) had a good afternoon, starting the team session by making a great deflection in the backfield against sophomore quarterback Tyler Hilinski (6-3, 217). Fellow junior linebacker Chima Onyeukwu followed by slipping past the Cougars’ offensive line for a sack on the sophomore quarterback.

Though his passes looked a little off for most of the day, Hilinski responded well by using perhaps the one skill he’s clearly superior to senior quarterback Luke Falk (6-4, 225) — his running game.

With the defense keeping all passing options covered on one play, and the rush wearing down the offensive line, Hilinski ran straight ahead for a touchdown. (Granted, the practice did not include full tackles, but the backup quarterback looked great on his feet regardless.)

However, Hilinski continued to struggle to stay on passing target throughout the afternoon.

When outside receiver C.J. Dimry (6-5, 213) lined up against defensive back Marcus Strong (5-9, 175), Dimry used his speed and 8-inch height advantage to beat the sophomore corner. Dimry put himself in a great position to make a catch in the end zone, but Hilinski overthrew him. It was, however, a great show of effort from the senior wideout after some on the Cougars’ coaching staff have been quietly grumbling he is a little too quick to avoid contact instead of fully committing to making a play on the ball.

After that missed connection, Hilinksi repeated the series — once again dashing for a touchdown when his passing options were taken away. And, again, he followed by throwing the ball too high for sophomore wide receiver Dezmon Patmon (6-4, 211) to make a play against senior linebacker Kirkland Parker (6-1, 186). In what was becoming a clear trend, Hilinski once again overthrew the ball when Dimry was battling against coverage from redshirt freshman Grant Porter (6-0, 184), who recently converted from wide receiver to defensive back.

Falk did a little better when he came in under sophomore center Noah Osur-Myers (6-4, 307). Osur-Myers, however, currently the second center on the depth chart behind fellow sophomore Frederick Mauigoa (6-3, 305), continued to struggle with snapping the ball in the shotgun, starting out Falk’s drive with two high snaps.

To his credit, Falk was quick to recover from the miscues. On the first, the senior quarterback immediately connected with junior Easop Winston (5-11, 183), who is rapidly becoming one of Falk’s favorite targets. (Falk likes to say his favorite receiver is the open man — and more and more it looks like no Cougar has an easier time finding open space than Winston.)

On the second high snap, Falk took advantage of the over-eager defensive reaction and ran for a quick gain. He looked decent running the football, but nowhere near as smooth or as quick as Hilinski.

When Mauigoa came in to snap for Falk, he looked much calmer than Osur-Myers and didn’t make any big visible mistakes.

On one of the better plays for the offense, Falk made a pass to sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Johnson-Mack (6-3, 218) along the right sideline. It was a great read by Falk, who sensed the oncoming pressure and gave the pass rush no time to get to him.

Falk’s next throw was another story, as senior cornerback Marcellus Pippins (5-10, 176) made a perfect read on the quarterback’s throw and picked off a pass intended for junior slot Kyle Sweet (6-0, 192). Sweet would do better against redshirt freshman Zaire Webb (5-10, 169), grabbing a touchdown from Falk in the right corner of the end zone.

In a show of one of Winston’s few weaknesses, Falk made a throw to the budding star against coverage from Parker, but the pass was a little too high for the 5-11 Winston — though it was in a spot where perhaps the taller Johnson-Mack or Patmon could have hauled it in.

However, Winston’s strengths were later on full display. When junior lineman Hercules Mata’afa (6-2, 255) got by senior right tackle Cole Madison (6-5, 315), Winston did a great job of keeping his route alive and finding enough space so Falk could eventually find a passing option while escaping the pressure.

In a somewhat controversial play, senior outside receiver Tavares Martin, Jr., made a great catch against coverage from senior Isaac Dotson (6-1, 224), only to have Dotson take the ball from Martin. The offense thought it clearly was a touchdown while the defense was equally convinced it was an interception.

Predictably, the coaching staff was not very concerned and wanted to get on with the next play — which, coincidentally, was a great interception by the defense. Pippins made a jump that’s more likely to be seen on a Pac-12 basketball court than on a football field and grabbed a Falk pass above multiple receivers, resulting in an eruption of cheers from his fellow defenders.

When sophomore Anthony Gordon (6-3, 189) got his turn at quarterback, Osur-Myers returned at center and he seemed to do better with the snapping technique.

Gordon began with a great throw to sophomore wide receiver Brandon Arconado (5-11, 181), who took advantage of the open field and ran for a touchdown.

Junior Keith Harrington (5-8, 194) looked good running out of the backfield for a big gain, until he was stopped by junior cornerback Darrien Molton (5-10, 181), who wore a yellow “no-hit” jersey for the first time this spring.

Redshirt freshman defensive back Dylan Axelson (5-10, 209) looked promising with a pick against Gordon, only to follow the takeaway by allowing Harrington to beat him for a 30-yard touchdown catch.

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