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Analysis: Washington State rides offense, second-half defensive surge to 31-24 win over Houston

Washington State Cougars wide receiver Travell Harris (5) brings down a touchdown pass against Houston Cougars safety Grant Stuard (3) during the second half of a college football game on Friday, September 13, 2019, at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

HOUSTON – Mike Leach placed a black hat squarely over his head, posed for photos, then dug deep into his library of Texas idioms to describe how his Washington State team and his newly minted starting quarterback managed to pull out a 31-24 win over Houston Friday night in the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff.

Of Anthony Gordon, who threw for more than 400 yards for the third consecutive game, had three touchdown passes and connected on 75 percent of his throws, leading the Cougars on offense, Leach explained to reporters his QB did a remarkable job of “circling the wagons.”

For the out-of-staters not familiar with the phrase?

“He got better as the game went on, he got more precise, he got sharper with his throws, was quicker to get his eyes in the right place,” Leach said. “Then the other thing I thought was just running the whole offense, communicating the play, for lack of a better word because there’s all these vague words, all the ‘momentum,’ ‘excitement,’ ‘energy.’ If that’s not enough, I call it circling the wagons, and I thought he did a lot better job circling the wagons and leading the group in the second half.

“See, that’s pretty Texas, right? Circle the wagons. So he did a good job circling the wagons and being a general of his group the second half.”

Point taken. The shoe – er, the cowboy hat – fits.

Gordon completed 36 of 48 passes for 440 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, but the redshirt senior’s efforts were mirrored by those of the WSU defense, which accelerated its play in the second half after Houston took a 14-7 lead into the locker room – the Cougars’ first halftime deficit of the 2019 season.

Behind D’Eriq King’s arm and legs, Houston accumulated 224 yards in the first half, but the explosive senior quarterback faced much more resistance in the second, and Dana Holgorsen’s offense managed just 143 more yards after the break.

WSU, now 3-0, didn’t make wholesale changes at halftime, but the product was drastically improved; Houston (1-2) began the third quarter by turning the ball over on a fumble, then punted on its next three drives.

“It goes back to our players. It’s player-led, not coach-led,” safety Bryce Beekman said. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. Everybody in the locker room’s trying to turn each other up, picking each other up. So that was the biggest thing, because we couldn’t come out in the second half how we came down in the first half, so we had to pick the momentum up, pick the energy up, and it is what it is now.”

Max Borghi capped a six-play, 44-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run – his fifth TD in three games – to knot things up at 14. WSU took the lead at 21-14 when Gordon lofted a ball over the top of two Houston defenders to Dezmon Patmon, who brought it into his chest and chugged into the end zone for a 39-yard score.

Houston closed it to 21-17 on a field goal, but WSU extended the lead out to 28-17 when Gordon unleashed a 7-yard touchdown to Travell Harris, who outfought two defenders to come down with the pass.

“Coach Leach always preaches play til the clock hits 0:00,” wide receiver Easop Winston Jr. said. “So that’s always our mindset.”

Midway through the fourth quarter, with WSU still nursing an 11-point lead, Beekman and the defense made the play to seal the final result in this duel of highly potent Air Raid offenses.

The junior college transfer safety, who led the game with nine tackles, flew in from behind, jarring the ball out from the grip of Houston receiver Marquez Stevenson. WSU true freshman Cosmas Kwete smothered the loose ball and Blake Mazza gave the Cougars a 14-point cushion with a 22-yard field goal.

“With the situation we were in, I knew I’ve got to make the play,” Beekman said. “The defense came out with the recovery. It’s all a credit to my teammates for hopping on the ball.”

The receivers were led by slotback Brandon Arconado, who had his second consecutive 100-yard game. The former walk-on caught a team-high nine passes for 115 yards, while three others – Borghi, Winston and Tay Martin – had at least five catches and 60 yards receiving.