PULLMAN – The game-clinching touchdown Washington State’s offense scored to secure its 31-14 win over Wyoming on Saturday was spoon fed by a defense that had done everything short of scoring itself to ensure a victory.
The 4-yard touchdown pass Luke Falk threw to Dom Williams with 2 minutes left in Saturday’s contest was set up by Jeremiah Allison’s interception and return to the Cowboys’ 12-yard line.
That defense was buoyed by a crowd of 31,105, which became deafening during WSU’s key third- and fourth-down attempts. The defense was led by sophomore linebacker Peyton Pelluer, who had 14 tackles, 3 1/2 of them behind the line of scrimmage, and nearly all of them big.
Pelluer dropped Brian Hill, who rushed for 139 yards on 20 carries, for a 2-yard loss on fourth down. He stuffed Hill again, with help from Destiny Vaeao, on third-and-2 to force a three-and-out on Wyoming’s first drive of the second half.
There were also significant contributions from WSU’s rush linebackers, Ivan McLennan and Kache Palacio, who finished with three and two sacks, respectively. Safety Shalom Luani made 11 tackles and forced a fumble.
The Cougars (2-1) forced two turnovers, giving them five this season under first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Last year the Cougars only had eight turnovers in 12 games.
“I think that one thing we’re doing quite a bit better is running to the ball,” coach Mike Leach said. “We were consistently running to the football the second half as well.”
The WSU offense sputtered in the second half, but the Cowboys went in reverse.
WSU’s defense knocked the Cowboys out of field-goal range when the Cowboys had first-and-10 in the red zone. Parker Henry dropped running back Shaun Wick for a 6-yard loss and Palacio sacked Cameron Coffman 16 yards behind the line of scrimmage, turning a Cowboys opportunity for at least three points into a punt.
WSU’s second-half defense was so sturdy that Wyoming coach Craig Bohl elected to punt the ball on fourth-and-1 with his team down 10 and just more than eight minutes left.
“It was third-and-short and we had just got stuffed earlier, and there was not another play that we felt comfortable using at that time,” Bohl said.
The shutout the defense pitched in the second half covered for WSU’s offense, which stagnated in the third quarter before regaining its footing with 10 points in the fourth.
Quarterback Luke Falk was efficient in that he completed 37 of 45 passes. His two touchdown passes to Dom Williams were beautifully thrown, although the first, a 35-yarder, was not as pretty as the one-handed catch Williams made with a defender on his hip.
But Falk only averaged 6.7 yards per attempt and took three sacks, two in the third quarter. Leach found fault with the offensive line’s performance, telling sideline reporter Jessamyn McIntyre that the unit was “playing fat and lazy” during their halftime interview.
When asked how the team played after halftime, Leach replied, “I thought they played similar to what they did the first half.”
Perhaps most significant about WSU’s second-half defense was the improvement it showed relative to the first half. The WSU defense crumbled in the second half of its first two games, allowing 52 points combined in the second halves against Portland State and Rutgers.
“The biggest thing I think we have to play together I think we have to play together, there’s a certain amount of indecisiveness that exists as far as a guy wanting a play to come to him,” Leach said. “We have to have a little more reckless abandon.”
But against Wyoming the WSU defense made a significant adjustment. Hill carved up WSU’s defense on off-tackle runs in the first half to the tune of 94 rushing yards on 12 carries. While Hill did manage a 31-yard run in the third quarter, his seven other second-half rushes went for just 45 yards.
“That was a huge problem for us in the first half – leverage,” defensive lineman Darryl Paulo said. “Grinch came in pretty mad about that.”
The Cougars have a bye next weekend, their only one of the season. The Cougars will then face two of the conference’s best offenses on the road at California and Oregon, which will surely present much tougher challenges to the WSU defense than the 0-3 Cowboys.
“We don’t have any room to relax,” Allison said. “I think we just ease off the gas pedal sometime. We can’t do that with any team. We don’t have room to ease off the gas pedal.”
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