PULLMAN – Back on the practice field for the first time since Thursday night’s game, Jason Hill experienced something all too familiar.
Running a corner route into the end zone, Hill watched a perfect spiral fall into – and then out of – his outstretched hands.
Stooping over to pick up the rolling football, Hill grimaced, shrugged, and offered commentary to no one in particular: “That’s what happened in the game.”
Dropped passes – a malady affecting Cougars receivers throughout 2004 – struck the man known as Washington State’s most reliable pass-catcher in the season opener against Idaho. Hill let four potential completions slip away, three in the first half, before rebounding to post 96 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions by game’s end.
“In the locker room everybody told me to calm down,” Hill said of the halftime break Thursday night. “I was beating myself up because I wasn’t having the day I expected to have.
“I needed that. I say that truthfully. I needed that. I was so ready for that game I was too ready. We came back to the sideline and talked about it. I was too ready, too hyped up. I was ready to kill them. So it was good for me to start out that way, but I finished the way I wanted to finish.”
One of those passes he let slip away came in the end zone, and on the next play quarterback Alex Brink threw an interception that sparked Idaho’s comeback attempt.
“I was trying to get my feet in and I took my eyes off the ball,” Hill explained. “I was looking at my feet to make sure I was in for a split second.”
Hill’s two touchdown receptions, good for 72 and 20 yards, put the game away and for the most part buried the disappointing first half for the junior wideout. The gloves he was wearing for the first half are gone, too – given away to a fan in the front row after the drops.
Even after the drops, the final statistics for Hill might suggest a normal night. The same can not be said, however, for the WSU receivers as a whole.
Brink completed 17 passes, but they went to just four players – somewhat unusual given WSU’s propensity to spread the ball around on offense. Michael Bumpus led the team with eight catches, Hill had his five, tight end Troy Bienemann had three and the 17th reception was by running back Jerome Harrison, who reeled in a swing pass.
“It just kind of happened,” head coach Bill Doba said. “It wasn’t intentional. Those four guys played pretty well.”
Coming into training camp, those four players were widely understood to be the team’s top skill-position threats. But it would make sense that their presence would open things up for other players. As it turned out, they seemed to open things up for one another.
“The first six balls of the game were completions – two to Jason Hill, two to Michael Bumpus and two to Troy Bienemann,” offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller said. “That’s pretty smart football, I think.”
Both Levenseller and Brink said they expect to see more of those complementary receivers catching passes soon. Chris Jordan served as the third starter at wideout against Idaho, and seniors Trandon Harvey and Marty Martin figure to be factors as well.
Of course, the good news for WSU is that the offense was able to score 38 points even with those four being the only receivers taking center stage.
“You take what the defense gives you,” Brink said. “It’s a good feeling knowing they’re going to go out and make plays, be open. We feel that if we get those guys the ball they are going to be open. And we’ve got a lot of good supporting guys around them.”
In fairness, one other Cougar did catch a pass Thursday night. No. 2 tight end Jesse Taylor caught a touchdown pass, the first of his career and only his second reception overall. And what happened?
Hill was called for offensive pass interference, negating the touchdown. And then Brink went to Hill on the next play for a touchdown that counted.
At least, the quarterback said, Hill made up for that over the weekend.
Said Brink: “Jason took Jesse and I out to breakfast the other morning.”
Falcons’ No. 1 fan
There probably aren’t too many people in Pullman who were saddened to see Washington drop its season opener, 20-17, to Air Force on Saturday in head coach Tyrone Willingham’s debut. But there was one Cougar who was especially happy to see things go the way they did.
Geoff Kirkwood, a freshman walk-on defensive back from Othello, was at Qwest Field in Seattle for the game to cheer on his older brother Greg, a senior wide receiver at Air Force.
So while Cougar fans reveled in Air Force’s comeback win, Kirkwood celebrated. His older brother caught the 84-yard touchdown pass that brought the Falcons to within four points of the Huskies. And then the elder Kirkwood caught a clutch third-and-9 pass with about a minute left that moved Air Force to the 1-yard line and set up the winning score.
“I knew Air Force would beat them in the fourth quarter,” Geoff said. “I haven’t seen him play in four years. It was fun to watch.”
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