RENO, Nevada – Washington State’s defense was better than most Cougar fans likely dared to dream, but penalties and missed opportunities sent the offense back four years to the days when touchdowns were exceptional, rather than expected.
The Cougars struggled to score in the first half and managed only a field goal in the second half of a 24-13 loss at Nevada.
“Offense plays reasonable last week and defense relaxes the whole day,” coach Mike Leach said in reference to the Rutgers game. “Defense plays well this week and offense will get a play or two and relax. It’s crazy. Nobody can beat anybody on one side of the ball.”
The loss drops the Cougars to 0-2 heading into next week’s game against Portland State, the team’s first in Martin Stadium this season.
Quarterback Connor Halliday was sacked twice on WSU’s first offensive drive, which ended in a punt, and the second was over after the Cougars turned it over on downs. Halliday was intercepted on the third drive, and after four consecutive rushes by Nevada’s Don Jackson the Wolf Pack were on the scoreboard.
On offense the Cougars moved the ball initially but struggled to put points on the board. Meanwhile Halliday kept getting hit. A pair of sacks and a shot to his helmet saw Halliday limping off the field at the end of WSU’s first drive.
Cougars kicker Erik Powell missed a pair of second-half field goals – if he’d made both the Cougars could have taken a lead – so the Cougars tried backup placekicker Quentin Breshars, who made his 38-yard attempt.
“Based on what I saw there’s a good chance we got a new field goal kicker,” Leach said. “The biggest thing was don’t have a field goal in the first place.”
Those field goal attempts were the result of struggles near the Nevada end zone that plagued the Cougars throughout the game. After WSU’s first touchdown – a beautiful 13-yard pass from Halliday to receiver Vince Mayle – the Cougars made it to at least the Wolf Pack 21-yard line five times without scoring a touchdown.
“We got to just make our routine plays,” Mayle lamented. “We just got to be perfect in the red zone and we just don’t execute.”
On WSU’s first drive. Nevada’s Matthew Lyons hit Halliday in the helmet after the quarterback slid to the ground, prompting an unnecessary roughness penalty. A trainer briefly attended to Halliday, and so he had to sit out a play.
“I don’t know if it rattled me but anytime a quarterback gets hit early it speeds up the clock in their heads,” Halliday said.
The WSU offense scored its fewest points since a 10-7 over USC victory on Sept. 7 of last year.
Halliday completed 38 of 57 passes for 389 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions.
The Nevada Pistol offense finally broke through the WSU defense when quarterback Cody Fajardo took advantage of some confusion among the WSU linebackers and ran 55-yards up the middle, shortly leading to another Nevada touchdown.
After Halliday’s second pick the WSU defense again held, setting up the Cougars with first down and 80 yards ahead of them.
The Cougar quarterback was a different player on the ensuing drive, completing four intermediate passes for 56 yards and a touchdown.
The defense held Nevada to another three-and-out thanks to Buck linebacker Kache Palacio, who snuffed out a Fajardo run for a one-yard gain on second down and broke up Fajardo’s third-down pass.
Halliday led the Cougars on a 62-yard drive that ended with a Powell field goal. The defense held again and the Cougars went into the half trailing just 14-10.
There was controversy early in the fourth quarter when Nevada went for it on fourth-and-short. Replay was required and the officials determined that Nevada had the first down. Running back Don Jackson punched it in from two-yards out on the ensuing play to put Nevada up 21-10.
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