PULLMAN – In two games so far this season, against opponents from less heralded conferences, the third quarter marked the difference between enduring an upset bid and enjoying a head-to-the-exits-early blowout for the Washington State Cougars.
Against New Mexico State in the season opener, in the third quarter Washington State added 13 points to what was already a four-touchdown lead. The Cougars turned a relatively close game (24-10) into a romp with back-to-back-to-back touchdowns to start the second half against Northern Colorado.
But that wasn’t the script last season.
Through two games this year, Washington State has scored more than half as many points (34) in the third quarter as it did the entire 2018 season, when opponents outscored them 86-49 in the first 15 minutes after halftime.
Players said that became a point of emphasis this year for the 20th-ranked Cougars (2-0), who conclude their nonconference schedule at Houston on Friday.
“We just felt this year that we needed to bring more energy in the second half,” sophomore running back Max Borghi said Saturday. “I felt like last year, (the) third quarter was horrible for us the whole season.”
Washington State finished 11-2 last season, and for the most part it played well in the first half. In 13 games, the Cougars entered halftime with a lead nine times. They were behind on three occasions, and once (against Utah, in a game they eventually won) they were tied at the break.
Each of the three times the Cougars trailed at half, they “won” the third quarter. Against Wyoming, they turned a 16-13 deficit into a 20-19 lead. Trailing Stanford 28-17 at the break, the score was 31-24 Stanford after the third. And in the Apple Cup, Washington’s 14-7 halftime lead shrunk – but didn’t go away – during an 8-6 third quarter for the Cougars.
Washington State eventually won the first two of those contests, whipping Wyoming 41-19 and “mustachio-ing” Stanford 41-38. The Apple Cup? Well, not so much.
But of those nine games Washington State led at half, its lead withered after halftime in six of them.
Against Arizona (55-14 at the break), a 14-0 third for the Wildcats didn’t jeopardize Washington State’s victory. But Oregon’s 17-0 third quarter made Washington State’s 27-0 halftime lead much more tenuous.
Yet only once did the Cougars’ lead evaporate entirely (Cal’s 3-0 third tied the game at 13), and never in those nine games did they enter the fourth quarter behind.
Still, those results apparently made it plain to the Cougars that their third-quarter deficiencies needed to be addressed.
It certainly showed in Washington State’s season opener against New Mexico State. On the Cougars’ four drives that started in the third quarter (the last one finished 47 seconds into the fourth), they gained 215 yards and scored 20 points (two touchdowns and two field goals).
During that same span, New Mexico State gained 42 yards on three drives and didn’t score. No great comeback, and the Cougars finished the game playing backups.
Saturday’s victory over Northern Colorado was similar. For Washington State, the third quarter included touchdown drives of 75, 50 and 49 yards. For Northern Colorado, three third-quarter drives ended in a punt, a fumble and a turnover on downs.
“We just had to make sure we (started) fast,” junior linebacker Justus Rogers said. “That’s the biggest thing, you know. That’s something we can always get better at, starting fast in the second half, and I think we did a decent job of that (Saturday).”
On Friday, the Cougars face a 1-1 Houston team that lost 49-31 to fourth-ranked Oklahoma, then defeated Prairie View A&M 37-17. Against the Sooners, Houston “lost” the third quarter 21-7. Against the Panthers, Houston “won” the third 3-0.
Neither result might be particularly instructive, given the disparate levels of competition, and the same could be said of Washington State.
“We really preached coming out hot in the second half, and I think it just shows,” Borghi said. “It’s slowly showing, so we just have to keep it up.”
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