DALLAS – For once, the Washington State University Cougars were able to talk about key plays in the second half.
Saturday at Southern Methodist, they broke a touchdown drought in the first quarter that stretched back nearly two years.
They went into the locker room at halftime tied, the first time they haven’t trailed a FBS school at intermission in almost three years.
And, as quarterback Jeff Tuel said, “we broke the spell of the first-play turnover, which is good.”
But none of it was enough. Again.
For the 24th time in the past three years, WSU (1-2) left the field defeated.
This time it was 35-21 to Southern Methodist, before a mostly listless crowd of 18,184 at Gerald J. Ford Stadium. And the mantra, again, was about lost opportunities.
The biggest, were, in order:
The chance to force SMU to punt on the game’s opening drive negated by a personal foul;
A made field goal that would have given the Cougars a 10-7 second-quarter lead rubbed out by a penalty. Nico Grasu pulled the ensuing 27-yard attempt left;
Letting the Mustangs off the hook after back-to-back false starts on a third-quarter opening drive. SMU quarterback Kyle Padron converted a third-and-7, propelling the Mustangs on a 12-play, 73-yard, 7-minute, 16-second, game-turning drive that put them up 21-14;
Jeff Tuel, under pressure, was just a touch high with a third-down screen pass early in the fourth quarter to James Montgomery from the SMU 26 with WSU trailing 28-14. There were no SMU players between Montgomery and about the 5-yard line.
But all those melt in comparison to the elephant in the stadium, the third quarter.
Tied at 14, Washington State came out of the locker room and played, well, like it has played in many of the last 28 first quarters.
“We just felt we’re tied up and we eased up,” said true freshman Deone Bucannon, who made five tackles. “We took the dogs off and we should have kept coming.”
“We have quarters when we play great, both offensively and defensively,” added defensive end Kevin Kooyman. “Then there are quarters when it just goes south.”
Quarters yes. But sometimes even a lone series. Take the first one of the game. The Mustangs’ Padron missed Keenan Holman on a third-and-4 slant and Bucannon, making his first collegiate start in place of injured strong safety Chima Nwachukwu, barreled into Holman.
Holman went down, followed by a flag. Personal foul. First down. Seven plays later, Padron scramble into the end zone from 13 yards out and it’s 7-0.
“That was a big series,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said. “We stop them on a third-and-4, opening drive, which they end up getting a touchdown on. And we have a personal foul. That’s shooting yourself in the foot.
“Those are the kind of mistakes we’ve made, unfortunately. You hate to say it, but youth plays into that.”
So does referee’s decisions. One kick-started the Cougars’ final drive of the first half, a personal-foul call that moved them into SMU (2-1) territory. Jeff Tuel then teamed with 6-foot-4 Jared Karstetter three times for big plays, the final a 4-yard jump ball touchdown pass over 5-11 Richard Crawford.
“The offense did a lot of good things today,” said Tuel, who finished 18 of 33 for 284 yards and two touchdowns.
So did SMU’s, especially on one second-quarter play – a 67-yard connection between Padron and Aldrick Robinson on the possession following Grasu’s miss – and throughout the third quarter – when Padron threw three more touchdown passes, two to Robinson and one to Darius Johnson.
And so did Washington State’s punt coverage team, which turned a Johnson muffed punt at his 10-yard line – he was hit by Jamal Atofau, who was flagged but not penalized after it was determined he was pushed into Johnson – into a score.
Sophomore walk-on Kyle McCartney fell on the ball in the end zone for his first college score and the halftime tie.
Then came the third quarter.
“We came out in the second half and we lost our composure a little bit,” Wulff said. “It was pretty obvious. We had a couple penalties that put our backs against the wall.”
As did SMU’s first second-half drive, the aforementioned 7:16 one.
“That was a really nice drive,” Wulff said. “We were there. They just made a bunch of real quality plays. You’ve got to give them some credit.”
With a 28-14 lead going into the fourth quarter, SMU, which had a 420-350 edge in total offense, was content to play contain defense and the Cougars, who had 29 yards of total offense in the third quarter, couldn’t convert two fourth-down plays deep in SMU territory.
Or make the connection on the screen pass.
“I didn’t even get to see the ball come out of my hand,” Tuel said. “I heard it was really open, I heard it was really high, so yes it’s one I would like to have back. Any incompletion is one I would like to have back.”
After SMU scored a late touchdown to up the lead to 35-14 – still less than the Mustangs were favored by coming in – Tuel didn’t miss Marquess Wilson. The freshman receiver capped the scoring by schooling cornerback Chris Parks and running away with a 68-yard touchdown catch at the 2:01 mark.
But any opportunity to win was gone.
“We made more good things happen today than we’ve ever made,” said Wulff, speaking from his vantage point as a veteran coach. “We just still don’t know how to finish games. We don’t know how to play four quarters yet.”
“We came out strong,” said Bucannon, speaking after his first college start. “The second half we didn’t have as much anger. Not anger, confidence, going. We settled for less. If we came out like we did in the first half we would have been in that game.”
“It’s just the drive we need to have when we’re in a game,” said Kooyman, speaking as a guy who has seen too many defeats the past five years. “It was ours to win. It’s not learning to win, it’s learning the effort to give all the way through, four quarters.”