EL PASO, Texas – The interdependent relationship of offense and defense was abundantly evident in a snow-inundated border town near Texas’ western tip.
With the exception of two drives to start the first and fourth quarters, the Washington State defense was practically perfect throughout its 20-14 Sun Bowl win over Miami. But WSU’s hallmark explosive offense was dormant throughout the second half of Saturday’s game, turning a potentially dominant win into a squeaker.
Ultimately, though, the offense was good enough to win, considering the defense’s exceptional performance. Luke Falk and running back Jamal Morrow led the Cougars to a 20-7 halftime lead, but were shut out in the second half.
The game, played in front of an announced attendance of 41,180, was the program’s first bowl win since the 2003 Holiday Bowl. WSU (9-4) also has its first winning season since the same year.
At the start of the season, first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and his staff set a goal of forcing 24 turnovers in 2015. It was an ambitious figure, three times as many takeaways as the eight the Cougars forced in 2014.
The Cougars forced three turnovers on Saturday to finish with 24, hitting Grinch’s mark exactly. The performance was impressive given that the Hurricanes turned the ball over just 11 times during the regular season. And it was imperative because all three takeaways came inside WSU’s 30-yard line, almost certainly taking points off the board. Hurricanes.
Falk, was named the game’s Most Valuable Player by the CBS broadcast crew. He completed 29 of 53 passes for 295 yards and two scores. Gabe Marks had five catches for 67 yards and a touchdown, while Morrow carried the ball 10 times for 71 yards and gained another 50 yards on five catches.
The WSU offense averaged just 4.9 yards per play. In the second half, once the snow really began to swirl, the Cougars converted just two of their nine third-down opportunities.
“I thought we allowed the weather to effect us on offense more than it should have,” Falk said. “But the defense had our back and they really should get the game ball… I felt like at times I got the groove but at times it was frustrating. I couldn’t get it going, I guess.”
The Hurricanes drove to the WSU five-yard line with 4:30 left in the game, appearing ready to take its first lead of the game and challenge the Cougars to complete yet another fourth-quarter comeback – it would have been their fifth this season.
But running back Mark Walton was stripped by Robert Barber, and cornerback Marcellus Pippins secured the ball for WSU.
That play wasn’t enough to ice the game for the Cougars, despite powdered snow accumulating in the end zone. The WSU offense could not get a first down, and the Hurricanes returned the Cougars’ punt to the WSU 29-yard-line with plenty of time to score.
But UM tried a halfback pass with running back Joe Yearby, and the wounded duck he tossed up flittered into the hands of safety Shalom Luani, denying Miami at least its third touchdown of the contest.
“I was ready for the play. From the blocking, I knew it would be a trick play,” Luani said. “I ran back to help the deep players.”
The Hurricanes tried to establish the running game in the first quarter, giving the ball to starting running back Yearby 10 times. Then the Cougars took it away in the second, limiting UM to minus-13 rushing yards and just 21 total yards in 13 plays.
The WSU defensive effort was led by its linemen, who combined to sack UM quarterback Brad Kaaya four times.
“Our goal coming was to get penetration on their line. We’ve done it all season, but we did it all game today,” said Darryl Paulo, whose second-down sack played a key role in forcing the Hurricanes into a three-and-out in the fourth quarter.
Freshman defensive end Hercules Mata’afa was especially dominant, sacking Kaaya once and drawing a double team throughout the game. Mata’afa could be a dominant player in years to come – he was named to a freshman All-America team and his performance on Saturday led to him being named the Sun Bowl’s best lineman by media covering the game.
Each team scored on its opening drive, with Morrow taking a screen pass from Falk – who had not played since the team’s penultimate game against Colorado – 31 yards.
The Hurricanes nearly took control on their second drive, but Charleston White knocked the ball away from receiver Rashawn Scott in the end zone, and linebacker Peyton Pelleur dove to secure the interception.
“The biggest thing, early on we were just anxious on defense,” Mike Leach said. “Everybody was over-trying a little bit and just anxious. Once they settled into their job together, it’s all kind of easy when everybody’s working together at the same time.”
Approximately 15 starters returning next season, including the team’s All-Conference quarterback and probably star wide receiver Marks. But it’s the expected return of seven defensive players that could springboard the Cougars to an even better bowl next year.
The Cougars will be known for their offense as long as Air Raid architect Mike Leach is the head coach. But just one year after firing its defensive coordinator, WSU is winning postseason games because of the defense.
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