PULLMAN – For anyone who has ever wondered what would happen if one of college football’s best offenses matched up against the backups of a banged-up defense Saturday’s game must have been an enlightening experience.
And experience is about the only positive the Cougars can draw from a 59-37 loss that was competitive right up until an Arizona player touched the football.
The first quarter was a horror show for WSU and most fans didn’t stick around for the curtain call. Every weakness the Cougars have shown this season was exploited quickly and mercilessly, putting WSU in a seemingly insurmountable hole long before the second act.
“At times we played really well and at times we didn’t have everybody, you know, playing as hard as we needed them to play,” WSU quarterback Connor Halliday said.
A three-and-out by the Cougars was followed by an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown by Arizona’s DaVonte’ Neal and that was just the beginning.
Arizona’s first five drives ended in scores while WSU’s first five ended in punts or turnovers. The Wildcats’ defensive success made it easy on the offense, which finished the game with an average starting field position of its own 40-yard line.
Arizona ended the first quarter with a 24-0 lead and would add another score before the WSU offense got on the scoreboard.
“We as coaches have to get them in that direction,” Mike Leach said. “Everybody needs to work together and focus and embrace each individual play and I think we’re too quick to react to the positive and the negative of the last play – in this game typically the negative of the last play.”
The fourth quarter wasn’t good either, not when Arizona’s Caleb Jones picked up his second score of the game by returning an onside kick for a 44-yard TD with the game already out of reach.
Slow starts have been an issue at times for WSU this season. They gave up a touchdown on the first play against Rutgers and quarterback Connor Halliday’s pass was intercepted on the game’s first drive. The Cougars punted on their first drives against California, Portland State and Stanford, and didn’t score until their sixth drive against Nevada. They dug themselves a 21-point hole at Utah, although they rallied to win.
“It’s weird because we were a real fast starting team last year, at least offensively,” Halliday said. “I think it’s my job to figure out a way to get us into some short completions or run checks here and there so I need to figure out a way to get that called.”
The rapid pace the Wildcats ran their offense – they finished with just 74 total plays to WSU’s 99 because of their efficiency and two special teams scores – made it difficult at times for the WSU defenders to get set before another play was run.
“Their tempo is fast, they’re really fast … definitely one of the fastest teams we face and you’ve got to really line up and make sure everybody’s in the right gap and that can be tough,” said defensive lineman Xavier Cooper.
The second half started much the same way the first one did, with Arizona scoring the first three TDs, making a moderately encouraging 16-point WSU run in the second quarter moot.
“We dug a huge hole early,” said Leach. “I think we came out of the week very intense, everybody wanting to play well, so I think we played tight the whole first quarter. The third quarter, basically they came out and hit us in the mouth and we spent the third quarter reeling rather than reacting.”
WSU had to play catch-up with an offense that was out of sync and a defense that had new starters at middle linebacker and cornerback, while players like defensive backs Kevin Griffin and Willie Roach made their debuts.
Senior nose tackle Kalafitoni Pole played but he did not start, causing shuffling along the defensive line.
“We’ve got some young guys back there,” Cooper said. “I remember being a freshman, coming into war and that’s tough but ultimately us older guys just got to bring them along and just continue to play hard.”
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