PULLMAN – Washington State washed away three weeks of frustration with a deluge of second-half big plays, rolling over outmanned Portland State 48-9 Saturday afternoon.
But even in victory, the Cougars were afflicted, with backup quarterback Gary Rogers taken off in an ambulance in the third-quarter after suffering a neck injury.
Rogers suffered a “stable cervical spine fracture that is non-surgical,” according to WSU trainer Bill Drake. He was scheduled to stay at Pullman Memorial Hospital overnight and will miss the rest of the year. WSU coach Paul Wulff had said earlier Rogers was moving his extremities and “there were a lot more positive signs than bad right now.”
The fifth-year senior was playing because of an injury suffered by starter Kevin Lopina, who had helped the Cougars break out to a 17-3 second-quarter lead before being blindsided by Eloka Anyaorah and suffering a right shoulder injury.
“(We’re) pretty disappointed to have a couple of our quarterbacks go down with injuries,” Wulff said. “But I do believe both of them are going to be OK.”
The injuries took some of the luster off the Cougars’ first win of the season after a 0-3 start, but not all of it.
“We’re trying to set the tone for our season and show that we can come out and compete each and every play,” senior wide receiver Brandon Gibson said. “This is a good one to start.”
On Portland State’s first play from scrimmage, sophomore linebacker Hallston Higgins, making his first career start, picked off a Drew Hubel pass deep in Viking (1-2) territory and returned it to the 17-yard line.
“I couldn’t have planned it any better than that,” said Higgins, playing in place of injured senior Cory Evans. “It’s my first pick, my first start in a game.”
Three plays later, Chris Ivory bounced outside and scored from 5 yards out to give WSU a 7-0 lead. Ivory rushed for 78 yards on 11 carries. Dwight Tardy added another 80 yards on the same number. WSU had a season-high 277 yards on the ground.
Though WSU would never relinquish the lead, the Cougars squandered many first-half chances to pour it on. They ended the half with 251 yards of total offense but had three turnovers – two interceptions from Lopina and one by Rogers.
But having a lead at halftime for the first time this season wasn’t a bad thing. Neither was the way the Cougars played in the second half.
“I was very excited about how we came out in the second half, and how we operated,” Wulff said.
Gibson opened the flood gates, catching a Rogers pass on a drag route from the left side to begin the third quarter, then cutting back across the middle and racing down the right side for 43 yards and a back-breaking touchdown.
The WSU defense held – something it did most of the night, limiting the Big Sky Conference Vikings to 8 yards rushing and 246 yards in total offense – and the Cougars went on the march again.
Rogers got them to PSU territory, but when safety Chris Assily hit him late – a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty was assessed – on an incomplete pass, the senior didn’t get up.
Both teams gathered as the ambulance came out. Prayers were said. The crowd chanted Rogers’ name. After he was taken away, the game resumed. And the Cougars took off.
“It made us play even harder,” Gibson said. “We came out after Gary was hurt and put points on the board. We had something to play for.”
In came third-string quarterback Marshall Lobbestael. The redshirt freshman from Oak Harbor, Wash., had only a handful of plays with the first-string offense in practice, but the lack of time didn’t seem to hurt.
“It’s like blur now,” he said. “When I was on the field, it felt pretty good, I guess. We had some good plays dialed up and everything sort of worked to my advantage.”
The first drive ended with his first career touchdown pass, a 14-yarder to Jeshua Anderson. The second ended with another touchdown, a perfectly thrown fade down the left sideline to tight end Devin Frischknecht for 53 yards.
“It seemed like they were down on the tight end a lot,” said Lobbestael, who threw seven of his nine completions to a tight end. “A lot of times I didn’t look off guys – I was locked on one guy, that’s something I need to work on, but I was definitely looking for the tight end and Devin made two nice plays for me.”
With Lobbestael at the controls, WSU outscored the Vikings 24-6.
“It was encouraging to see him able to make plays,” Wulff said. “It was a very good game for him to get experience in.”
And a good win for Wulff, who was hired in December to take over a program that hasn’t been to a bowl in four years. After the winless start, Wulff was just looking for a win, any win.
“I’ve been waiting a long time since December, I’ll tell you,” he said. “It felt great, awesome. It’s good to get that under our belt. Now we move forward.
“This team’s taking steps. Maybe not as fast as we want, but it is. We need to take a big step this next week.”