SEATTLE – The legion of mistakes and first-start miscues that must be owned by backup quarterback Peyton Bender were enough to make a Washington State win all but impossible in the Apple Cup.
The magnitude of, and the ineptitude present in the 45-10 loss to Washington, however, were group efforts. The gulf between the potential the Cougars have hinted at throughout a largely successful season and the mewling kitten on display in Friday’s loss was as vast as the Husky Stadium overhangs.
“For whatever reason our guys played wide-eyed,” coach Mike Leach said. “And we’ve clearly beaten teams that are considerably better than Washington this year.”
The following are some ways in which UW (6-6, 4-5 Pac-12) outplayed WSU (8-4, 6-3) that had nothing to do with the Cougars’ redshirt freshman quarterback, who played in place of concussed starter Luke Falk.
The Cougars defense was mauled on the ground. Freshman UW running back Myles Gaskin carved up the Cougars with 143 rushing yards and fellow freshman Chico McClatcher added 43 more on three carries, including a double-reverse that went for 26 yards and the game’s first score.
The Huskies ran stronger as the game wore on, or maybe the WSU defense just got worn out. UW finished with 240 rushing yards, 157 of which came after halftime. Most critically, the Huskies imposed their will with the run game whenever the Cougars tried to get back in it.
WSU wasn’t dead at halftime, down 17-3. When Bender threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Dom Williams with 4:14 left in the third quarter, it cut UW’s lead to 24-10 and gave the Cougars some momentum.
The Huskies responded with a slow, merciless drive consisting of 11 plays, only two of which were passes. Gaskin pounded the WSU defense seven times on that drive, grabbing 55 yards and a 5-yard touchdown five seconds into the fourth quarter that effectively ended WSU’s resistance.
The defense was stronger against the pass, except when it let Isaiah Renfro and Jaydon Mickens slip past the safeties for 43- and 41-yard bombs, respectively, from quarterback Jake Browning, himself a true freshman.
“Defensively we – I don’t know how many times we had them on third-and-long. We had them on third-and-long the whole day,” Leach said. “Third-and-long, third-and-long, third-and-long, and then we let them convert it. Let them off the hook. And then we let them have explosives at inopportune times.”
The Cougars never showed any semblance of a rushing game, which would not have been so important had they been able to do anything offensively through the air. Bender’s early rhythm was disrupted by myriad dropped passes by some of his most sure-handed receivers – Biletnikoff Award semifinalist Gabe Marks had three bounce of his hands.
Snowballing screw-ups took their toll on Bender, who completed his first six passes and moved the ball efficiently in the middle of the field. The Cougars got within 5 yards of the UW red zone on two of their first three drives yet ended with just three points to their names.
“That was the most disappointing part of today,” Bender said. “We just have to finish those drives but we missed opportunities. Dropped balls, misreads on my part.”
There was never much danger of Bender overcoming those deficits by himself. He threw two interceptions – both returned for touchdowns – and fumbled the ball twice.
But those accounted for only four of WSU’s seven turnovers, as fumbles were also coughed up by playmakers like Gerard Wicks, Keith Harrington and Marks, whose fumble was returned for a UW score.
Bender need assume little or no responsibility for those deficiencies, themselves enough to give the Cougars a loss in front of 70,438 fans of mixed partisanship. He has enough of his own mistakes to worry about.
The Huskies sacked Bender three times, taking advantage of a lack of in-game experience that caused Bender to be more stoic in the pocket than the cerebral Falk. While WSU’s wide offensive line splits are often cited as an advantage in that they force defenders to take a longer route to the quarterback, UW defensive coordinator Peter Kwiatkowski noted that they allowed UW’s strong defensive linemen to overpower WSU’s offensive line.
“That allowed us to power rush a lot more,” Kwiatkowski said. “When he steps up in the pocket, there’s not a lot of room to step up.”
Any time a team throws as much as the Cougars do – 68 passes on Friday – the person putting the ball in the air is going to be of outsized importance, and WSU is not the same eight-win team that blitzed the Pac-12 the last two months without the quarterback who got them there.
But Bender’s play mirrored that of his teammates more than it dictated.
“I thought he started out pretty good but as we collapsed as a team, he collapsed,” Leach said. “I think most of our problems go back to coaching, starting with me and all of us coaches, we need to find a way to coach these guys better because we didn’t have them prepared to play.”
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