PULLMAN – The lowest point didn’t arrive at the end of a long descent for Washington State. Rather, it rocketed up to meet the Cougars, who thought they were in the midst of their own ascension.
Head coach Mike Leach and athletic director Bill Moos have stated that the current team is the most talented since Leach was hired in 2012, and presumably much more so than in the few years immediately preceding the hire.
Many involved with the program have stated that, because this year’s team was almost entirely recruited by Leach, the camaraderie and buy-in were at the highest levels anyone could remember.
But those improvements were limited to the practice field for at least the first week of WSU’s 2015 campaign. The Cougars christened the season on Saturday with a 24-17 home loss to Portland State, a team that they beat by 38 points one year ago.
The Vikings (1-0) didn’t control Saturday’s game against the Cougars (0-1) because PSU has remotely comparable talent, judged by scholarships offered, scholarships to offer, star ratings or potential NFL players.
To hear the WSU players tell it, the Vikings won because the Cougars miscommunicated and were worried about the weather, which alternated between drizzling and pouring a manner not unfamiliar to Pullman residents.
“It seemed like everyone was bothered with the weather instead of just playing the game,” said running back Gerard Wicks. … “(There) was a lot of stuff going on. Running backs didn’t get the call from the quarterbacks, (the line) didn’t get the call. Just a lot of stuff going on.”
Leach delved into the communication issues more thoroughly, calling it “incomplete communication” because breakdowns usually resulted because of a few individuals not receiving a message.
The scope of the loss is amplified because of the opponent, which had never beaten a Pac-12 school. WSU’s loss is just its third in 48 games against current members of the Big Sky Conference and its first since 1947.
“I think (we) worked really hard and then we’d go out there and try to make too much happen,” Leach said. “We never loosened up.”
WSU’s tightness manifested itself more as the game progressed. The Cougars received the opening kickoff and methodically drove to the PSU 4-yard line, settling for a field goal to open the scoring.
WSU made it 10-0 when Luke Falk threw a screen pass to running back Keith Harrington, who was escorted the 24 yards to the end zone by pulling interior offensive linemen Riley Sorenson and Eduardo Middleton.
WSU scored once more – a 5-yard pass from Falk to Gabe Marks to tie the game at 17 in the fourth quarter – but the rest of the game belonged to the Vikings.
“I thought Portland State deserves a lot of credit,” Leach said. “They’ve got a bunch of seniors and I think those guys hung together and when they faced adversity those guys waited it out, worked through it and we never really did that.”
Falk looked downfield occasionally, including a 39-yard strike to Marks in the second quarter. But he typically kept things close, perhaps neglecting a few downfield shots that may have opened up a defense that was becoming more effective against the run.
Falk completed 27 of 41 passes for 289 yards and the two scores.
“I thought he needed to react quicker and see the field better,” Leach said about Falk. “It’s kind of like way too much trying to make the perfect play. That’s a long way of saying I wish he would have settled down.”
While WSU’s offense may not have been explosive in the first half, it was firmly in control, outgaining the Vikings 274-66 in yards and controlling the ball for more than 23 of the first 30 minutes.
After halftime, PSU’s offensive line consistently won the matchup against the WSU defenders and the Cougars struggled to find the ball. Alex Kuresa and Paris Penn saw time at quarterback for the Vikings, with Kuresa netting 92 yards on the ground and Penn adding 57 and a score.
“The biggest thing is we weren’t doing a very good job tackling the quarterback and so they ran him more, got him more involved, ran him more and did some stuff off of that,” Leach said.
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