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Eastern Washington pulls off big upset over Washington State

Eastern Washington Eagles running back Antoine Custer Jr. is congratulated by teammates after scoring a touchdown in the first half against Washington State in Pullman. Eastern upset WSU 45-42. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – If the 2016 Washington State football season is as successful as the 2015 version, it will be a happy year for the Cougars and their fans.

But the initial feeling of part of déjà vu sure is a punch in the gut, one that knocked the wind out of 32,952 fans who watched it happen all over again.

Saturday’s 45-42 loss to EWU was WSU’s second consecutive season-opening loss to an FCS team from the Big Sky. Once again, a first-time starting quarterback came into Martin Stadium and made Cougars defenders look silly, while Eagles wide receiver Cooper Kupp was without a doubt the best player in the stadium of a school that did not think him worthy of a scholarship out of high school.

“Make no mistake – it’s like I said earlier in the week, Eastern Washington’s first-level guys are as good as our first-level guys are,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “They proved it today and I thought they executed more discipline than we did. I think that they’ve done this to a lot of people, and they did it to us.”

What made this loss different than last year’s shocker against Portland State was that the Cougars did not stumble out the gates, thereby making the game tense and tentative. WSU’s offense futzed around for its first few drives, but the Cougars did manage to put themselves in the position of control initially.

“We’ve got a ton to improve upon, and we’ve got a lot of film to do it,” Leach said. “I think there were times, in spurts, where we did some really good things.”

The Cougars took a 21-14 lead on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Luke Falk to Gabe Marks, who caught the fade with one hand in the corner of the end zone. The lead held for all of one play before Cooper Kupp took a pass from Gage Gubrud 75 yards for his own score.

WSU scored 28 points in the first half, although the Cougars led by just four points, thanks to a half-ending 48-yard field goal by former WSU punter Jordan Dascalo.

Gubrud was sublime in his first start, completing 34 of 40 pass attempts for 474 yards and five touchdowns. Kupp was incredible, making 12 catches for 206 yards and three scores. He also ran for 29 more yards, and threw a 22-yard pass.

Luke Falk led a WSU offense that was doubtlessly productive – he threw for 418 yards and four touchdowns, and the Cougars had two rushing scores as well. But the WSU offense ran out of gas in the third quarter, when the Eagles took control of the game. The Cougars came up empty on all three third-quarter drives, while the Eagles managed a pair of touchdowns.

Falk acknowledged after the game that he was too eager to connect on explosive plays, rather than moderate but more efficient plays.

“I think they did a nice job of taking away some of our things we like to hit,” Falk said. “In the fourth quarter, yeah, taking the shorter route, getting more run checks, getting our offense in rhythm. I think we’re a real rhythm-based offense and when we start playing a good tempo and get in a rhythm, we’re hard to stop that way.”

The teams traded blows for nearly two quarters, but the WSU defense finally stepped up when Hercules Mata’afa sacked Gubrud on third down with just more than 2 minutes left in the first half.

In every sense it was a season opener. In college football, where there are no preseason games, that invariably means sloppiness. The contagion of bad tackling quickly spread throughout both teams, and the penalties (11 for EWU, 12 for WSU) quickly followed. Both teams missed easy kicks, with WSU’s 38-yard wide left offering proving especially costly, since it cost the Cougars a chance to make it a one-score game with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter.

The Cougars rely primarily on safeties to set up the defense prior to the ball being snapped, and doubtlessly missed all-conference free safety Shalom Luani, who has not practiced since his Aug. 24 arrest for assault.

“There were a few (communication problems), but for the most part we knew what we were doing,” said cornerback Marcellus Pippins, whose interception was WSU’s only defensive takeaway. “There were a couple young guys back there, but that doesn’t give us an excuse for things like that.”

A flag on Isaiah Johnson-Mack wiped away a Morrow touchdown run, and Falk was sacked by Samson Ebukam on the subsequent third-down play, setting up Erik Powell’s missed field goal.

EWU made the most of its halftime, outscoring the Cougars 14-0 in the third quarter and putting the Cougars on their heels. WSU did not score until there was 4:42 left in the game, when Falk reared back and lofted a 9-yard pass to running back Gerard Wicks, who sneaked out of the backfield and into the end zone.

But WSU lost the game because of its inability to stop the EWU offense, specifically Gubrud and Kupp. The Eagles milked the clock with a series of run plays on the subsequent drive, setting up an 18-yard play-action pass to Kupp when forced into a third down. One play later, Gubrud faked a handoff and ran 30 yards through the middle of WSU’s defense for the decisive touchdown.