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Washington State lackluster on defense, mistake-prone on offense in 58-37 loss to Arizona

 (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

TUCSON, Ariz. – When the Cougars desperately needed a jumpstart on offense, Mike Leach made the gutsy move to pull fourth-year starter Luke Falk from the game and insert backup Tyler Hilinski. The stunt worked for a moment – Hilinski led a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped by a 6-yard keeper to bring the Cougars within six points – just not in the long-term.

Hilinski rushed for two touchdowns and passed for two more, but the redshirt sophomore also threw four costly interceptions and those combined with a lackluster day from the WSU defense, buried the Cougars in a 58-37 loss at Arizona Stadium.

WSU drops to 7-2 overall and 4-2 in the Pac-12 with the loss, falling one game behind both Washington and Stanford. Arizona improves to 5-2 and 3-1.

Leach replaced his record-setting senior with the second-stringer late in the second quarter. Hilinski got WSU into the end zone, but the Cougars gave up 50 yards on the ensuing kickoff and Arizona kicker Lucas Havrisik knocked in a 56-yard field goal as time expired to give the Wildcats a 23-14 lead at the break.

Falk engineered just one scoring drive in the first half and didn’t appear injured when Leach yanked him with 2:56 left in the half. Hilinski completed seven of his first eight passes and scrambled into the end zone from six yards to make it 20-14.

He had plenty of good moments, finishing 45-of-61 through the air with 509 yards. But Hilinski shot the Cougars in the foot more than once with his misthrows – and this wasn’t a day in which the WSU defense could recover.

The Cougars trailed by as many as 13 points in the half, but despite closing the gap, were still outgained 281-192 by redshirt sophomore phenom Khalil Tate and the Wildcats.

Tate slipped free for a long run of 84 yards in the second quarter – it was his fourth run of 70 yards or longer in four games – and sped in from 49 yards out early in the fourth quarter.

In all, the Cougars conceded 310 rushing rards and four touchdowns on the ground. Tate’s become one of the country’s most explosive rushers, but he also made WSU pay with his arm, completing 10-of-17 for 275 yards and two touchdowns.

The Cougars did a fine job of bottling him up as a rusher in the early going, but couldn’t sustain it.

Jalen Thompson pinned Tate in the backfield on the game’s opening play for a loss of three yards, but the UA QB unleashed a 43-yard downfield pass to Shawn Poindexter to put the Wildcats in WSU territory. But Tate was unable to scramble to the first-down marker on third down and Arizona would settle for a 30-yard Josh Pollack field goal.

The Wildcats forced a three-and-out on the Cougars’ first offensive series and extended their lead when Tate spied his tight end open downfield and then hit Jamie Nunley for a 48-yard score.

Luke Falk and the WSU offense couldn’t make it to midfield on their next drive, and looked like they’d be giving the ball back to the Wildcats for a third time, but Arizona’s Shun Brown muffed Kyle Sweet’s punt and the Cougars took over on the opponent’s 25-yard line.

Six plays later, they were in the end zone. Falk threw a bullet to Isaiah Johnson-Mack on the goal line to cut the Arizona lead to 10-7.

The Cougars could’ve tied the score at 10-apiece when they rolled out kicker Erik Powell to try a 56-yard field goal. Powell’s boot had the distance but sailed wide left.

Instead, Arizona continued to pad its lead. Tate went deep to Tony Ellison for a 41-yard completion, then hit Brown on a sideline screen for a 17-yard TD, making it 17-7.

Tate registered his fourth run of 70 yards or longer on the next play, but what was initially ruled an 86-yard touchdown came back when referees decided Tate had stepped out at the 2-yard line. The Cougars played stout defense and held the Wildcats to a field goal.

But Arizona broke the seal in the second half, outscoring the Cougars 36-23.