Even after cornerback Alex Teems created sparks with a pick off of Kole McKamey to open the second half -- thereby setting up Josh Swogger's 16-yard scoring aerial to Chris Jordan to put the Cougars up 7-0 -- the fire didn't spread.
It wasn't until they fell behind 17-7 that these Cougars -- pushed around in the trenches by the Mountain West Conference runner-up -- started looking like the cats the faithful have come to expect.
With the defense rising to the challenge to the tune of two fourth quarter interceptions and a blocked punt, WSU rallied for three late touchdowns to pull one out, 21-17, over New Mexico's tenacious Lobos.
"One thing we learned is that we have heart," Teems said.
The winning score, a four-yard pass from Swogger to Troy Bienemann, who caught the ball with one hand, came with just more than seven minutes left in the game. It was set up by Omowale Dada's picture-perfect block of a New Mexico punt that Tyron Brackenridge scooped up and returned to the Lobo's four-yard line.
"That punt block was huge," WSU head coach Bill Doba said afterward. "(It was) the difference in the game, really."
Whether it was nerves of inexperience and an opener in a hostile arena, or perhaps old fashioned cobwebs from the off-season, WSU's offense and defense just couldn't find a rhythmn Friday night -- especially in the trenches.
But then came the final period.
The defense was back to the blasting, blitzing, smothering version of 2001-2003.
And the offense? Well, lets's just say Swogger and his merry band served notice that they aren't going to buckle under pressure. After New Mexico went up 17-7, the Cougars proceeded to march 82 yards on 14 plays, with Swogger connecting on 9-of-10 passes. One of them was the difference in the game -- a fourth-and-9 strike to Jason Hill that took the ball to the New Mexico 11. Swogger hit Trandon Harvey two plays later to pull the Cougars within three at 17-14.
"It was a tough atmosphere to play in," Swogger said. "But I knew we were going to come through and make the catches in the second half."
A TEEMS EFFORT: Alex Teems, making his first-ever start, was nothing less than spectacular. He intercepted two key passes and posted six tackles. Two more potential INTs slipped through his hands. One of those near-interceptions occured in the Lobo endzone and was subsequently followed by a missed New Mexico field goal attempt.
BURNING THE REDSHIRTS: Three true freshmen played for the Cougars: starting kicker Loren Langley; starting defensive tackle Ropati Pitoitua, and receiver Michael Bumpus. Langley was perfect on three PATs; Pitoitua was the Cougars' second-leading tackler behind Hamza Abdullah (eight) with seven stops including 1.5 sacks, and Bumpus caught one ball for four yards.
SPREADING THE WEALTH: Swogger completed passes to seven different receivers. Harvey (six for 46) and Bienemann (five for 56) led the way. In all, Swogger completed 24 of 38 passes for 240 yards, three TDs and two INTs.
GREAT RETURNS: JC Transfer Tyron Brackenridge, who recovered the crucial blocked punt, looked more than comfortable returning kicks for the Cougars. He brought back three kickoffs for 67 yards.
BOOMING START: All-America candidate Kyle Basler got off to a great start on the season, launching seven punts for an average of 47 yards per kick.
LOBO DOMINANCE: How good was New Mexico? So good that they outgained the Cougars 415 yards to 271 and held an 18-14 advantage in first downs. Their defensive line, horribly outsized by WSU's OL, was particularly impressive.
NEXT UP: Colorado in Seattle next Saturday at 12:30.