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Analysis: Washington State offense hits some lulls, but defense does enough to preserve shutout in 31-0 win over San Jose State

PULLMAN – The wide receivers weren’t playing with the same gusto they’d shown earlier, the quarterback wasn’t syncing up with them like he had in the first half and despite an otherwise superb effort, the offensive line was still lacking a little something in pass protection.

The third quarter is when a better team could’ve caught the Cougars, who’d definitely started to lag on offense after shelling out 24 points in the first half. And the fourth is when somebody other than San Jose State could’ve surged past them.

But on this night, SJSU was no better than the pee-wee football team that took the field for halftime festivities, in that neither scored a point against the Cougars’ defense Saturday, which had to pick up the slack for Gardner Minshew and the offense at times during a 31-0 win at Martin Stadium.

Minshew threw three touchdowns and ran for another, but WSU’s starting quarterback was intercepted twice in the first half when it was still a tight game. Tight, perhaps, only on the scoreboard. Any cushion felt like a comfortable one Saturday and the Cougars were able to get their first just 2:05 into the first quarter – long before the Air Raid went stagnant.

On the sixth play from scrimmage, Minshew surveyed the right side of the field, then the left, noticing sophomore receiver Tay Martin had gained a step on his defender while dashing toward the back left corner of the end zone. Minshew hit Martin over the top for a 15-yard touchdown and the two hooked up again for a 36-yard score later in the quarter.

But that connection died by the time the third quarter started, as did any desire the Cougars had to put this game fully out of reach. Minshew scored out of a read-option play in the final seconds of the first half to make it 24-0, but then WSU went about 20 minutes – from the start of the second half to the 4:39 mark of the fourth quarter – without adding to its lead and failed to break 40 points against an opponent that ceded 44 to a lower-level FCS team seven days earlier.

“I just thought we were soft,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “I thought we were too satisfied with the first half.”

Fortunately, only 50 percent of WSU’s operation was lagging.

The defense surrendered just eight first downs to the Spartans, who could at least say they were balanced offensively – bad in the air and bad on the ground. Furthermore, the Cougars limited SJSU to 109 total yards, which are the fourth-fewest in program history and the fewest since Oregon managed just 97 in a game 24 years ago.

That’s how WSU managed to pitch a shutout in its home opener for the second straight season and blank a third opponent in its last 15 games.

“The defense played great,” WSU offensive lineman Liam Ryan said. “I felt like I was on the field for most of the first quarter and second quarter we had a lull. But I felt like I was on the fields and we’re supposed to be on the field most of the time. The defense did their job, credit to all them, and we’re thankful to have them on our team.”

Other impressive defensive numbers Saturday night: WSU’s five quarterback sacks, which each came from a different player, and SJSU’s third-down conversion rate, which finished at 2-of-13. The Spartans had to punt 11 times.

“I think we did a great job as a unit,” middle linebacker Justus Rogers said. “Ones, twos, threes, whoever went in executed, did their job and was flying around. It was fun tonight.”

And the offense, dormant much of the second half, finally kicked back in late in the fourth quarter when Minshew found running back James Williams for a short 3-yard touchdown pass. The QB, putting some of his third-quarter woes behind him, completed 5-of-5 passes on the drive for 75 yards to stick the final nail in the Spartans.

“We’re going to take everything back to film this week, really try to get a whole week better getting ready for Eastern (Washington),” Minshew said. “That’s kind of our motto right now. Whatever happens happens and then we take it and we get a week better.”