HOUSTON – Championships aren’t won in the third game of the season, but trophies are handed out occasionally.
Perhaps that best encapsulated how Washington State felt, and what it accomplished, in a 31-24 win over Houston at NRG Stadium. The Cougars secured what might be the best road nonconference win of the Mike Leach era, but they didn’t lose sight of their long-term goals. It’ll be a nice addition to the Cougar Football Complex, but the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff trophy obviously is not the piece of hardware players set their targets on this offseason.
“I thought the first half was really tough as we’re learning some of those lessons,” Leach said. “I felt like it was swimming in quicksand the first half. I thought as a team you learn a lot and develop a lot along the way. One was playing on the road in a place that you’ve got to deal with the distractions and the transitions, so it was a particularly long trip in a very impressive stadium that they all get to see on TV.”
In the books, a seven-point win will go down as nothing more than the third win of the season and a decent résumé-booster. Leach got a new cowboy hat out of the deal and the Cougars (3-0) gained some confidence as they head into Pac-12 Conference play next Saturday at home against UCLA (7:30 p.m., ESPN).
It’s an area in which Leach’s team used to struggle, but the Cougars have seemed to finally master the nonconference schedule. The disclaimer being, they haven’t scheduled the same way many of their Pac-12 rivals have, and by not playing teams such as Notre Dame, Auburn or Michigan State when the opportunity arises, WSU should go undefeated in these out-of-conference games.
But it wasn’t too long ago the Cougars were dropping nonconference games to midlevel midmajors and teams even lower than that. Consider: In the first five years of the Leach era, WSU went 8-7 in nonconference games. During that span, the Cougars lost road games at BYU and Auburn. Those ones should be forgiven at such an early stage of Leach’s rebuild. But home losses to Portland State and Eastern Washington, and a three-point loss to Rutgers in Seattle, were harder to stomach.
By knocking off Houston on Friday, the Cougars secured their ninth consecutive nonconference win. In the three-year unbeaten stretch, WSU has outscored its nonconference opponents 402-158.
The Cougars play five of six nonconference games at home the next two years, hosting Houston (2020), Idaho (2020), Utah State (2021), Portland State (2021) and BYU (2021). The lone road game comes next season at Utah State.
It’s feasible to think WSU could take its nonconference win streak into a 2022 matchup at Wisconsin. The Cougars would have 16 straight nonconference victories at that juncture.
In his postgame press conference, Leach noted the gradual improvement his team made throughout the game. Leach said WSU was at its best in the fourth quarter and wouldn’t have minded another quarter to see the Cougars capitalize on their second-half success.
“I thought we played frantic the first half, both offensively and defensively,” Leach said. “Then when we settled in, I thought we played well the second half. Wish we played the whole game like that. Again, that’s part of the process to develop as a team. The other thing, we played from behind and come back and won. I thought we were playing our best football at the end.
“For the sake of our team development standpoint, as we were improving, because as a coach I always look at it as, how much better can you get in the increment of a week? I almost wish we had a fifth quarter because I thought we had more work to do and could’ve grown a little bit more.”
WSU improved categorically from the first half to the second. The victors totaled 489 yards of offense – 173 in the first half and 316 in the second. They allowed 367 yards, conceding 224 before the break and only 143 after it. WSU managed nine first downs in the first half and 16 in the second. The Cougars also forced two turnovers in the second half after zero in the first.
“We knew we were leaving plays out there in the first half,” WSU receiver Easop Winston Jr. said. “Coming into the second half, we just had to get back to doing what we did best and nobody was flustered. We knew we were going to hit adversity coming into the game, so the second half we got it going.”
Rooks rise up
Two true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen were called on Friday night to help WSU on defense.
Three of those four made highlight-reel plays for the Cougars, who’d still consider their defense a work in progress, but clearly have as much or more young talent than they have in a while.
Redshirt freshman Pat Nunn, a nickelback who played a bit of safety Friday, led the freshman crew with four tackles and had an impressive open-field tackle on Marquez Stevenson, taking the Houston receiver down behind the chains.
True freshman Cosmas Kwete played an important role in Houston’s second turnover, which gave WSU the ball back with fewer than 7 minutes to play in the fourth quarter and the Cougs leading by 11. When Bryce Beekman popped the ball out of Stevenson’s hands, Kwete recovered it. He turned in three assisted tackles Friday.
Redshirt freshman safety Tyrese Ross has clamped down a rotational role in the defensive secondary, but his top highlight came on kickoff coverage. The Floridian bolted through an army of black jerseys to reach returner Bryson Smith, who ran 15 yards before he was flattened by Ross. That was one of three tackles for the second-year freshman.
True freshman Travion Brown made his third appearance in as many games for WSU – another sign the inside linebacker probably won’t be redshirting in 2019, especially with Dominick Silvels and Dillon Sherman sidelined for the Cougars. Brown didn’t come close to matching his eight tackles from last game and finished with one.