PULLMAN – At the end of a hellish week that saw him arrested and possibly kicked out of school, Robert Barber made a play that injected life into his lethargic team and sprung Washington State to a 56-6 victory over Idaho, a win the program and fan base sorely needed.
With 7:35 left in the first half, Idaho kicker Austin Rehkow lined up for a 32-yard field goal that would have cut WSU’s lead to a single point. Barber blew through the line and blocked the kick, which bounced in front of cornerback Marcellus Pippins, who scooped up the football and ran it 72-yards for a game-changing score.
Barber is at the center of an assault investigation that has plagued WSU (1-2) throughout its rocky start to the season. He and freshman defensive lineman T.J. Fehoko were arrested Friday morning on assault charges for their role in a fight in August that left two students hospitalized.
Furthermore, a University Conduct Board ruled this week to expel Barber from school, though he is allowed to play while the case is appealed.
But if Saturday’s game should be Barber’s last for the Cougars, the redshirt senior sure made it count.
The Cougars (1-2), flush with energy after the play, scored again just a few minutes later. Garrett McBroom forced a fumble on the ensuing drive, and Luke Falk threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Gabe Marks to give the Cougars a 21-3 halftime cushion.
“I thought we played hard the whole game, but I thought we played tight early on,” said coach Mike Leach, who called out the team for a lack of toughness early in the week. “The defense loosened up and played better than the offense, sooner. The special teams unit was fairly explosive throughout the day. The sloppiness with regard to penalties is alarming.”
Yes, it was far from a perfect game for the Cougars, despite the final score. The receivers had too many drops, even for a particularly rainy day. There were times the defense looked out of sorts. Jamal Morrow lashed out in a moment of weakness, throwing a punch at an Idaho player, and was ejected for the lapse in judgment. That will cost him the first half of the game in two weeks against Oregon, too.
Holding penalties brought back a pair of decent kickoff returns, and a nice punt return by Kaleb Fossum, who is proving to be very adept in the role, as well.
But the Cougars got the blowout win they needed.
“Just to finally have a game where we put it all together felt really good,” Falk said.
“We needed this one very bad,” defensive back Robert Taylor said. “With the bye week coming up it’s going to help out a lot, coming off this win. Very positive, especially going into Pac-12 play.”
If nothing else, however, playing better is a testament to the team considering all the potential distractions in the last week. The Cougars made national headlines nearly every day, and that’s a tough microscope for a team that was winless at the time.
Leach questioned the team’s toughness on Monday, and said after Saturday’s game he started to see what he is looking for in the third and fourth quarters.
“I felt like coming off those last two games we already knew what needed to be done,” Taylor said. “Those comments, I felt like helped out a lot because they let us know what needed to be done and needed to be done now.”
Falk completed 21 of 36 pass attempts for 226 yards, including a 50-yard pass to Kyle Sweet to the 2-yard line. That connection set up WSU’s first score, a 2-yard rush by James Williams for the first score of his career. Falk threw three total touchdown passes.
Williams carried the ball 14 times for 126 yards and the touchdown. WSU had its most potent rushing attack of any game coached by Leach, rushing for 228 yards. Gerard Wicks chipped in 50 and a touchdown on seven rushes and Morrow added 38 more on seven carries. Falk added 12 more and walk-on Alijah Lee added 14 to the total.
“We just basically took what they gave us,” Falk said. “You put four in the box and try to cloud everything, we’re obviously going to run it.”
Idaho quarterback Matt Linehan completed 19 of 33 passes, gaining just 172 yards. The Vandals also made occasional use of backup quarterbacks Gunnar Amos and Mason Petrino, with Amos completing 1-of-4 passes for seven yards, and Petrino contributing 10 yards on the ground.
WSU scored another special teams touchdown when Wicks recovered a fumbled kickoff return and ran it into the end zone. That came on the heels of a touchdown pass from Falk to Kyle Sweet.
The Cougars did have some special teams trouble, however, missing a 43-yard field goal near the end of the half. Kicker Erik Powell has missed all three field goal attempts this season.