It was a game against a Division I-AA opponent that Washington State didn’t need to play and, at times, didn’t seem to care about playing.
It featured plenty of points and plenty of penalties, but very little in the way of offensive flow and nothing in the way of an arresting storyline.
The Cougars, as expected, put away Montana 38-21 Saturday afternoon in Martin Stadium, scratching a few leftover itches from last weekend’s road loss to Pittsburgh in the process.
But they took their time, letting the outmanned Grizzlies (1-1) hang around until late in the fourth quarter before finally turning out the lights with a 7-yard touchdown run by Derek Sparks.
Sparks’ scoring run, his second of the game, put WSU ahead 31-14 with 5:29 left and blew away any lingering clouds of doubt concerning the outcome.
But many of the 28,312 on hand to help celebrate the Cougars’ home opener were long gone by that time, having split at intermission to make better use of a glorious autumn afternoon.
It wasn’t that the football was all that bad. The effort, for the most part, was there. The concentration and consistency were not.
Running back Frank Madu rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown and Sparks added 81 yards as the Cougars finally got their running game untracked.
WSU quarterback Chad Davis completed 23 of 39 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns, giving the Cougars more than 500 yards of total offense for the first time in 18 games.
And Montana’s Dave Dickenson proved to be as good as billed, throwing for 322 yards and three touchdowns while under relentless pressure from a WSU defense that held the Grizzlies to minus-6 yards rushing.
But sandwiched between all the individual heroics were 28 penalties, five turnovers and several botched scoring opportunities that kept the game from developing any rhythm.
WSU, which was penalized 149 yards in last Saturday’s 17-13 loss to Pitt, drew 14 flags and lost 113 yards against the Grizzlies.
“This is just ridiculous,” WSU coach Mike Price said. “Maybe it’s just that we’re inexperienced, but we’re really going to evaluate that and find out what we’re doing wrong.
“We’re going to make great strides to improve on that.”
Fortunately for Price, he has a bye week coming up and a few extra days to work out his penalty problems before UCLA invades Martin Stadium Sept. 23 to kick off the Pacific-10 Conference season.
Montana, on the other hand, must prepare for next weekend’s home matchup against Minnesota-Duluth, leaving itself little time to ponder the “what-ifs” from Saturday’s loss.
Like “what if” Dickenson doesn’t fumble the ball away deep in his own territory to set up WSU’s 24-7 touchdown - a 16-yard pass from Davis to Shawn Tims - early in the third quarter.
Or “what if” he doesn’t make a low pitch to running back Kelly Stensrud, resulting in another lost fumble and blown scoring opportunity inside WSU’s 10-yard line later in the period.
Or “what if” an official doesn’t call Montana for offensive pass interference well away from the ball to nullify Dickenson’s apparent 16-yard touchdown pass to Raul Pacheco early in the fourth quarter.
Then you have a different game, maybe even a different outcome.
“The one thing that took us out of it was the touchdown that got called back,” said Montana coach Don Read, whose team came away empty on the drive when WSU defensive tackle Gary Holmes broke through and got a hand on David Henkel’s 38-yard field-goal attempt.
“The psychology changed. We were wearing down, but that touchdown (would have) brought us back. I think the momentum might well have changed had that touchdown not been called back.”
WSU took over on its own 21 following Henkel’s miss and promptly launched a decisive 79-yard scoring drive that resulted in Sparks’ second touchdown. His first came on a 34-yard pass from Davis early in the second quarter.
Montana scored again on Dickenson’s third touchdown pass - a 15-yarder to Joe Douglass with 2:44 left. But the Cougars answered with a 10-yard scoring run by third-string running back Miguel Meriwether just 2 minutes later to make the final score deceivingly lopsided.
“We played with a lot of intensity and a lot of effort, but not always smart,” said Dickson, who completed 33 of 59 passes under the intense - and sometimes painful - pressure of WSU’s pass rush. “That was not a 17-point game. They might think so, but I really think we shot ourselves in the behind.”
The Cougars, after mounting an impressive 56-yard scoring drive on their first possession, returned the favor on several occasions.
Davis fumbled the ball away once just after crossing midfield and threw a third-quarter interception that stopped a WSU scoring drive at Montana’s 37.
In addition, the Cougars helped set up Montana’s ill-fated, fourth-quarter scoring chance by letting Josh Remington break through to block George Martin’s punt.
Price said his team’s ensuing defensive stand, which got a huge assist from the pass interference call and an illegal procedure penalty that nullified Henkel’s first fieldgoal try, was the key to the game.
“When they blocked that punt, everyone in the stadium thought Montana was coming back - except the 11 guys that were on the field (for us),” Price explained. “And they did a great job in not only stopping them for lost yardage, but in blocking the field-goal attempt.
“I thought it was a tremendous effort by those players. What we didn’t do was sustain that effort through 60 minutes.”
The most encouraging development for WSU, other than the victory, was the emergence of a running game. That helped Davis’ play-action fakes and opened up some passing lanes as well.
“Montana’s a great team, no doubt about it,” said junior offensive tackle Scott Sanderson, who played a major role in the Cougars’ domination up front.
“But we came out and did what we wanted to do and that was run the ball effectively, throw the ball effectively and score points. I don’t want to take anything away from Montana, because they’re a classy club. But this was a game we should have and a game we did win.
“We had a lot of penalties that hurt us again. Between the penalties and some sloppy play at times, we allowed them to stay in the game” until the fourth quarter.
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