Citizens of Cougar nation, including a crimson-clad majority of those in the sun-splashed crowd of 50,830 at Qwest Field and however many watched on television, Saturday saw Oklahoma State capitalize on Cougar miscues in spoiling Wulff's WSU debut, 39-13.
The Big 12 Conference Cowboys did it with a balanced attack (174 yards rushing and 193 passing), a satisfactory defense that kept the Cougar offense in check for most the game and a kicking game that was the beneficiary of porous WSU special teams.
"In most cases, the first game of the year usually comes down to turnovers and special teams, and I think that was pretty evident," Cowboy coach Mike Gundy said.
While turnovers were virtually even – neither team lost a fumble; each team had one pass interception – the same could not be said about special teams.
WSU's special teams were, for the most part, anything but special. The Cowboys turned punt returns of 35 and 67 yards into a pair of field goals and stifled a semblance of Cougar momentum by returning a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.
The decisive kickoff return, by Perrish Cox, followed by seconds the first WSU touchdown, scored by Brandon Gibson on a 9-yard pass from Gary Rogers with 5 minutes 46 seconds to play in the third quarter. That the point-after kick by Wade Penner failed merely added to the Cougars' kicking-game flaws.
Nevertheless, the touchdown produced WSU's first points, cutting its deficit to 18-6, and giving the crowd something to feel good about.
The feeling was short-lived.
The ensuing kickoff by Patrick Rooney was caught by Cox at the WSU 10 and the 195-pound junior ran and weaved up the center of the field to a touchdown that all but sealed the Cougars' fate, at 25-6.
"We did a very poor job with middle-of-the-field coverage,'' Wulff said, "and allowed them to take it back for a touchdown. That was a big momentum swing, obviously. There were blunders on the special teams that need to be fixed, and can be."
OSU's kicking game produced 19 points – 13 on three field goals and four extra points kicked by Dan Bailey and the six scored by Cox on his kickoff return. The Cougars only kicking game point came on the point-after kick Penner made following a 3-yard touchdown plunge by Rogers early in the fourth quarter.
In addition, the Cougars yielded two points on a second-quarter safety when running back Dwight Tardy was tackled by Cowboys in the end zone.
"There were a lot of things that didn't go well,'' said Wulff, who in his first months as coach has had to deal with a depleted number of scholarships and a rash of injuries to front-line players. Nevertheless, he didn't use either negative as an excuse.
"We didn't put ourselves into a position to win the game just because there were too many mistakes made. It doesn't surprise me that we made the mistakes. The best thing we can do is take this film and build off it. We'll get better."
For Rogers, a fifth-year senior from Mukilteo, it was his first game as the Cougars' starting quarterback following four seasons as the backup to Alex Brink. After a first half during which he seemed affected by jitters -- he completed just 4 of 11 pass attempts for 22 yards -- he went 8 for 13 for 60 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
"He had some balls dropped," Wulff said of Rogers. "I would guess between five and seven, somewhere in that range. He may have missed some checks. But overall, after he calmed down, I thought he did a nice job."
Rogers said he had some pregame jitters but "after the first play I felt fine."
He is confident about the future.
"We showed some good signs of improvement out there today. I look forward to what we have to come."
For awhile it appeared the Cougars were destined to depart from their traditional mode of transportation – an explosive passing attack – and rely on a running game featuring tailbacks Dwight Tardy and Christopher Ivory. But as Rogers got more comfortable a semblance of offensive balanced was the result.
"You'll see this offense evolve,'' Wulff said. "We'll get better. If our running backs stay healthy and our offensive line gets healthy we think we have a chance to do some good things in the throwing game, if we can get (Daniel) Blackledge healthy and get (Jeshua) Anderson back and Brandon Gibson all on the field.
"Injuries in camp have not allowed us to move forward as much as we would like, from the standpoint of what we wanted to put into the offense."
Blackledge, who has been physically limited by injury, caught two passes for four yards on Saturday. Anderson did not play.
There is nothing wrong with Gibson, though he did drop a couple of well-thrown passes. After getting blanked in the first half, the all-Pac-10 receiver had six catches for 52 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
But by then, the Cougars were in catch-up mode, a situation that developed at the end of the Cowboys' first series when Bailey kicked a 26-yard field goal.
Kendall Hunter, a 5-foot-8 sophomore who ran for 107 yards on 23 carries, boosted OSU's lead to 10-0 with an 11-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. It was followed by the safety (12-0) and a 21-yard field goal by Bailey (15-0 at halftime).
Following the 67-yard Price punt return, a 27-yard field goal by Bailey made it 18-0.
The Cougars answered with a nine-play, 75-yard drive that featured a 14-yard catch by Gibson and runs by Tardy and Ivory for 32 yards. The 9-yard touchdown pass from Rogers to Gibson cut WSU' s deficit to 18-6.
Cox's 90-yard kickoff return followed and it was 25-6.
Rogers' short TD run five seconds into the fourth quarter capped a 16-play, 69-yard drive that consumed 6:22.
Oklahoma State completed the scoring with a pair of touchdowns in the final 10 minutes.
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