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Momentum shift hurt Cougars in first loss

San Diego State running back Ronnie Hillman scampered for 191 rushing yards and scored four touchdowns in the Aztecs’s victory over WSU. (Associated Press)
San Diego State running back Ronnie Hillman scampered for 191 rushing yards and scored four touchdowns in the Aztecs’s victory over WSU. (Associated Press)

SAN DIEGO – There is little that changes momentum in a football game like a blocked punt.

Or trying to get one and failing.

It was the latter, with a little more than 10 minutes to play in the third quarter, that seemed to turn Washington State’s fortunes Saturday night in a 42-24 loss before a late-arriving crowd of 57,286 at Qualcomm Stadium.

At the point Bennett Bontemps barely missed Brian Stahovich’s 43-yard punt and got his legs instead, the Cougars led by 10 and would have had the ball at their 19.

But instead they were flagged for roughing the kicker, resulting in 15 yards and a San Diego State first down.

Even WSU coach Paul Wulff could sense the momentum shift.

“Yeah, a little bit,” he said in the tunnels under Qualcomm as the postgame fireworks show raged above. “But they still had to capitalize, which they did, right? They scored a touchdown.

“But, you know, good teams are going to learn to overcome those things. It’s a teaching moment for everyone. When we face momentum swings, we have to fight our way back out of it. Make plays to counteract the momentum.”

Instead, San Diego State – which at that point had 230 yards of total offense with running back Ronnie Hillman, second in the nation in rushing, having just 58 on 16 carries – exploded on Sky Show night.

Three plays later, the Aztecs (3-0) were in the end zone on a 25-yard toss from Ryan Lindley to Gavin Escobar, one of 11 passes San Diego State’s three tight ends caught. And they were on their way to outscoring the Cougars 28-0 over the final 25 minutes.

“We need to embrace adversity a little bit better,” said WSU defensive coordinator Chris Ball, whose defense yielded 270 yards, 133 of them by Hillman, down the stretch. “After that (penalty), we’ve got to come out there and we’ve got to play through that. We’ve got to embrace that stuff.”

“Guys not fighting, not communicating, didn’t want it bad enough,” linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis said as way of explanation of the defense’s final 25 minutes.

But it wasn’t just the defense that struggled finishing. After opening the second half with a 78-yard scoring catch-and-run-through-the-entire-defense screen pass from Marshall Lobbestael to Marquess Wilson, part of the sophomore’s career-high 236 receiving yards on just six catches, WSU gained 19 yards on its next 14 plays.

By the time Lobbestael connected with Jared Karstetter on a 13-yard pass 5 minutes into the fourth quarter, San Diego State led 28-24. And only Nolan Washington’s hand, with which he got a piece of Abelardo Perez’s 39-yard field-goal attempt, forcing it wide left, kept it from being more.

But Lobbestael followed the Karstetter completion with another to Wilson, this one for 37 yards down the left sideline and WSU was in business at the SDSU 25.

The Cougars quickly tried to capitalize, throwing a back-shoulder route to Wilson, who was hit by Larry Parker before the ball arrived but drew no call. So on second-and-10, WSU went to the wide-receiver screen. The Aztecs jumped it.

Lobbestael, who threw for a career-high 363 yards, hitting on 20 of 42 attempts, saw it, ate the pass but, when trying to reload and throw the ball away, saw it slip from his hand. SDSU’s Rob Andrews recovered. It was Lobbestael’s second fumble to go with two interceptions, offsetting his three touchdowns.

“We missed some opportunities,” said WSU offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy, who also took issue with the no-call on the play before the fumble. “It’s 28-24 then we have the mishap on the screen in the red zone and turned the ball over.

“Right there, I thought that was the turning point of the game.”

Hillman made sure WSU wouldn’t turn it back, breaking a handful of tackles on the next play, a 59-yard touchdown run that was his fourth of the night and 25th of his 17-game college career. All of that offset a poor showing by Lindley, who finished with 273 yards on 21 of 37 attempts, but missed open receivers all night.

It also offset another offensive show by the Cougars, one that began on the game’s first play, an 80-yard bomb from Lobbestael to Wilson, as the sophomore receiver overmatched safety Gabe Lemon in single coverage.

“Coach Sturdy knew he would catch them in that matchup on Marquess,” Lobbestael said. “He dialed it up perfect, so all we had to do was go execute it.”

That’s something the Cougars bemoaned not doing down the stretch. After dominating two teams to open the season, they dropped their first tight game. Now they have a bye before opening Pac-12 play in Colorado on Oct. 1.

“It really tested our manhood out there,” freshman defensive tackle Toni Pole said of the Cougars’ first loss. “This game can either be the worst thing that happens to us this year or it can be the best thing.”