SEATTLE – Twenty minutes. Thirty-five unanswered points. One befuddled team.
“We just started out slow,” said Washington State University defensive back Chima Nwachukwu after the Cougars gave up five touchdowns in the first 20 minutes and lost 38-20 before 42,912 at Qwest Field on Saturday.
“It seems like we need something to spark us at the beginning of the game,” Nwachukwu said. “That put us in a bad position, because (Hawaii) came out ready to go.”
The Warriors of the Western Athletic Conference scored touchdowns on three of their first four drives, though drive is quite possibly the wrong word. None of Hawaii’s five touchdown possessions was longer then its first, which took 3 minutes, 10 seconds.
Part of that was their offensive efficiency. Part of it was WSU’s inability to hold on to the ball.
The Cougars fumbled seven times. They lost four. They threw three interceptions. By halftime, they had five turnovers.
In each of their first several possessions, they fumbled or muffed the ball away, threw an interception, or put the ball on the turf, recovered it but were forced to punt.
“We made the kind of mistakes that just don’t give you a chance,” coach Paul Wulff said. “When you have five turnovers in one half, you’re not going to beat anybody at any level.”
Not only did the Cougars (0-2, 0-1 Pac-10) start slowly, they looked slow.
Hawaii receivers Rodney Bradley (seven catches for a career-high 150 yards and two touchdowns) and Greg Salas (seven for 195 – also a career high – and one touchdown) constantly turned short catches into long gains by running away from WSU defenders.
“Man-to-man,” Salas said of WSU’s defense. “Playing off. Great feeling. Some teams get out of it, they stayed in it. It was great.”
Hawaii finished with 626 yards of total offense, more than the Cougars gave up in any game last season and the most since USC put up 745 in 2005. The 489 yards passing are the most WSU has given up since Arizona State’s Paul Justin burned them for 537 in 1989.
“They are taught to find the hole in the zone and, if they see us in man coverage, run man patterns,” safety Xavier Hicks said. “They have a veteran quarterback, so he knew where to throw the ball.”
That quarterback, Greg Alexander, finished 26 of 36 for 453 yards, sitting behind great protection to find the open man. Last year, in Hawaii’s 24-10 win, Alexander was sacked seven times. This time he was sacked once, by Casey Hamlett. He was hurried twice.
“We threw a lot of different looks at them,” said co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball, “and they did a good job of protecting the passer.”
But after Alex Green broke free on a draw and raced 44 yards up the middle to score with 10:05 left before halftime – putting UH up 35-0 – the Warriors wouldn’t find the end zone again.
It was WSU forcing turnovers – Hawaii fumbled twice inside the Cougars’ 10-yard line and had four altogether – and moving the ball.
James Montgomery came off the bench, carried the ball 17 times and finished with 118 yards. His 6.9 average was built in part by his ability to break tackles and pick up extra yards.
Montgomery scored WSU’s first touchdown, powering off left tackle for 2 yards early in the second half. That cut Hawaii’s lead to 35-13 because Nico Grasu had booted two field goals late in the first half.
The first Grasu field goal, with 2:03 before intermission, brought a smattering of boos because WSU faced a fourth-and-goal at the 2 trailing 35-0.
“I thought about (going for it),” Wulff said. “We did. But then we decided to get some points on the board.”
The Cougars’ last points came courtesy of a Kevin Lopina quarterback draw, a 4-yard run that made it 35-20 with 13:18 left.
But Hawaii’s Salas broke free for a 61-yard catch and run on the next play and the Warriors kicked a field goal three plays later to seal it.
Lopina played the entire second half and finished 18 of 32 for 191 yards and two interceptions. The first pick was his fault, as he tried to force a ball to Jared Karstetter to start the second quarter that Spencer Smith snared. The last, midway through the fourth quarter, was not, as his pass for Tony Thompson was tipped twice before Mana Silva came up with it.
But by then the game was decided, though that could have been said after the first 20 minutes.
“We’re a team that has to learn how to start,” center Kenny Alfred said. “Starting and finishing are both crucial.”
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