PULLMAN – The setup seemed perfect.
Washington State University was back on the Palouse for its first football game in 35 days.
It was a crisp fall day, with snow still evident on the Martin Stadium turf.
A Dad’s Weekend crowd of 25,661 was poised to throw its voice behind the home team.
It seemed the perfect time for the Cougars to attack.
But it turns out the UCLA Bruins are adept counterpunchers. They snatched back-to-back-to-back first-quarter interceptions, rolled up 556 yards of total offense Saturday and eventually rolled over the stunned Cougars 43-7.
The Cougars won the toss, took the ball and attacked. They were “just trying to create some offense,” coach Paul Wulff said.
That mindset first backfired on the game’s third play.
Sophomore quarterback Marshall Lobbestael, starting in place of freshman Jeff Tuel after the latter’s knee injury last week, tried to make something happen on the first possession.
Facing a third down and about 2 feet at his 29, Lobbestael audibled from a run to pass. He tried to find fullback Jared Byers in the right flat and instead threw the ball to a diving Akeem Ayers.
First down UCLA at Washington State’s 27. A minute, 18 seconds had elapsed.
“We had a run called and he audibled, which wasn’t horrible because they were in a man coverage,” Wulff said following WSU’s seventh consecutive defeat. “He just probably threw it to the wrong guy. The outside receiver, Jared (Karstetter) ran a post and he was open.”
One play, and 6 seconds later, it was 7-0 Bruins.
Taylor Embree ran past corner Aire Justin, who thought he had safety help over the top. He should have, but didn’t.
Quarterback Kevin Prince, who had his third 300-plus yard passing day of his freshman season, found Embree at the 10 and he sauntered in for the score.
“That was a safety issue,” Wulff said. “We were in a Cover 2 and the safety didn’t get over in time.”
The next two WSU possessions ended the same way as the initial one, with Rahim Moore and Ayers picking off Lobbestael passes. For Moore it was his ninth interception of the season.
“You’ve got to give credit to the defense,” said Prince, who directed the Bruins to two touchdowns in the first 10 minutes. “They created the turnovers and we just capitalized.”
Not as much as they could have. Despite the largesse, UCLA (5-5, 2-5 Pac-10) cashed in only Ayers’ pick, though it started both possessions in WSU territory.
Aggressive or not, the offense never really got going, finishing with 181 total yards.
Besides Dwight Tardy’s 24-yard, first-quarter run – Tardy finished with 41 yards and moved past Michael Black into seventh on WSU’s career rushing list with 2,167 yards – the Cougars had minus-13 yards early in the second quarter.
By then Prince, who was 27 of 40 for 314 yards passing, had raced down the left sideline on a 68-yard TD run, the longest play of his career. WSU once again trailed by at least three TDs before halftime for the seventh time this season.
With Lobbestael unable to generate any offense – he was 2 of 6 for 6 yards and the three interceptions in 20 minutes – WSU turned to senior Kevin Lopina.
Lopina had not played since the second game of the season.
On his second possession, Lopina eluded the UCLA pressure and broke away for a 36-yard run. But Andrew Abbott caught him from behind and knocked the ball free. UCLA’s Reggie Carter fell on it at the UCLA 29 and WSU (1-10, 0-7) had its fourth and final turnover.
Lopina, who finished 7 of 14 for 102 yards, atoned for the mistake in the third quarter, leading a seven-play, 80-yard drive that resulted in the Cougars’ only score.
Facing a third-and-7 at the UCLA 46 – on the third of just six snaps Washington State had in Bruins territory all day – Lopina saw the defense in a Cover 2, with two safeties deep.
“Coach dialed up a play we had been practicing all week,” said Jeffrey Solomon, who got behind Moore.
“We got away with one, really. But when an opportunity presents itself, we’ve got to take advantage of it.”
But that was WSU’s only scoring opportunity on the near-freezing day.
By the time Solomon found the end zone, much of the crowd had cleared, braving the icy steps back to their cars and home.