PULLMAN – It may have taken almost all of the first three quarters of the season’s second game, but the Washington State University Cougars may have discovered their true personality.
And it’s more Mr. Hyde than Dr. Jekyll.
It was the run-all-over, attack-as-much-as-possible Cougars who rallied from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit against Montana State on Saturday to win 23-22.
But it was the milquetoast brethren wearing the crimson uniforms for the first 40 minutes who, in large part, dug the hole.
That group played “here’s a turnover, would you like another?” early, then sputtered on both sides of the ball until it was almost too late.
Almost, but not quite.
“Look, you don’t play a great game, you turn the ball over early, then you fought our way back,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said Sunday, relaying what he told the Cougars in the locker room. “Our backs were against the wall in the fourth quarter and you fought out of it.
“I think all along you believed you were going to win and then there came a moment where, ‘uh oh, we may not,’ and the next thing you know we picked up our intensity and we responded.”
The first thing that picked up was the defensive pressure. After playing “a little more conservative than we should have been” in the early going, Wulff said, the Cougars began to bring more than four to rush Montana State freshman quarterback Denarious McGhee.
“When we started attacking a little more and pressing, we started making plays on defense,” Wulff said. “All three of our interceptions were tipped balls in some form of man coverage. A lot of times you don’t get interceptions in man coverage.
“We forced pressure, we forced an errant throw, or we batted the ball up in the air,” Wulff added, noting each game plan is different based on the opponent. “There’s no question when we blitzed, we made more things happen in this particular game.”
Four late defensive stands, which ended with three interceptions and a fourth-down sack, gave life to the offense.
“Our last drive of the third quarter and all of the fourth quarter,” Wulff said, “we did a lot of really good things and created some rhythm for us on offense.”
And scored 16 consecutive points.
So once again it seems the big question for Wulff and company is how to get the drooling Mr. Hydes to show up from the beginning. Each of the season’s first two games opened with a turnover on the Cougars’ first play.
“We handed it over to people and it gave us a shot to the stomach,” Wulff said. “We’ve got to overcome that. I don’t know, maybe we do a quarterback sneak on the first play.”
With MSU’s six unanswered first-quarter points, Washington State has been outscored 227-6 in the opening quarter dating to a Dwight Tardy touchdown against Arizona on Nov. 8, 2008. That was also the last time WSU scored first.
“I would love” to have a first-quarter lead, Wulff said. “We’re due. But I do think this team will overcome that. That’s going to happen for us.”
One thing WSU hasn’t experienced since late last September is heading into a game coming off a victory. Since defeating SMU 30-27 in overtime last year, the Cougars had lost 10 consecutive games. Coincidentally, next up are the Mustangs this Saturday in Dallas.
“Anytime you come off a win, it’s great,” Wulff said. “We need to use it and go down there and play a good football game.”