PULLMAN – At times, Washington State showed the promise and potential of a football team capable of creating havoc in the talent-laden Pac-12 North, as the Cougars have so often these last five years.
That was the glass half-full takeaway from Saturday’s game against No. 11 Oregon.
As for the glass half-empty take: Despite a first-year coordinator, fresh schemes and new personnel at a variety of positions, the Cougars still haven’t displayed the defensive resolve to consistently stifle the conference’s heavyweights.
In a 43-29 loss at Martin Stadium, one of those heavyweights managed to rush for 269 yards and score four touchdowns in the second half to pull away from the Cougars and drop Nick Rolovich’s team to 1-1 on the season.
Oregon’s three-headed rushing attack of Tyler Shough, CJ Verdell and Travis Dye averaged 7.5 yards per carry and the Ducks thoroughly dominated the second half with 213 yards on the ground. One week after conceding 28 points to Oregon State in the second half, WSU gave up 29 to Oregon. One year after allowing the Ducks to rush for 300-plus yards, the Cougars’ run defense still showed it’s very much a work in progress.
All of that considered, though, WSU squandered opportunities to give itself more of a buffer entering the locker room at halftime, and the Cougars felt the final score wasn’t reflective of who they are in 2020.
“You’ve got to give Oregon credit, but also the realization we had our opportunities to put that game further out of reach in the first half,” WSU head coach Nick Rolovich said.
“We’ve got to shoot for touchdowns instead of field goals. I love (kicker) Blake Mazza, but especially with three turnovers in the first half, we’ve got to turn those into touchdowns. … I appreciate them playing hard and sticking together, but at the end of the day we’ve got to make plays, we’ve got to execute better, we’ve got to coach better and I think that’s about the gist of it.”
Led by freshman walk-on safety Ayden Hector, the Cougars did force the reigning Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champions into three first-half turnovers: two fumbles, both of which were recovered by Hector, as well as a Hector interception that gave WSU’s offense the ball back on its 40-yard line.
The Cougars capitalized with a touchdown on one of those takeaways, but got just three points out of the other two, entering halftime with a five-point lead they felt could have been in the double-digit realm.
The biggest back-breaker came in the final minute of the second quarter.
WSU extended its lead to 19-7 on Mazza’s 39-yard field goal with 24 seconds left in the half. On Oregon’s first play of the next drive, Shough launched a deep pass to Jaylon Redd, who effortlessly raced past WSU cornerback George Hicks III for a 57-yard gain that set up Verdell for a 2-yard score to make it 19-14.
That opened the floodgates for an Oregon offense that didn’t need any additional help getting on the scoreboard.
“Yeah, I think that struck us a little bit,” Rolovich said. “I think we were able to gather it back in at halftime.”
The Ducks dominated time of possession in the third quarter, kept their opponent out of the end zone and used the relentless run game to wear down an already-thin Cougars defense that was playing without three members of the two-deep. A fourth one, Will Rodgers III, left the game in the second half with an apparent injury and never returned.
With less than 10 minutes to play in the fourth quarter, WSU’s defense faced a crucial third-and-6. A stop would’ve given the Cougars a chance to tie the game, but the Ducks instead exploited a coverage mismatch. Shough threw to Dye, who scampered past WSU’s Ron Stone Jr. for a 71-yard touchdown that gave the visitors a two-touchdown cushion.
The Cougars closed the gap to seven points on a 1-yard touchdown run from Deon McIntosh, who rushed for 92 yards in his second game filling in for Max Borghi. But Oregon didn’t take its foot off the pedal and two big runs from Dye – a 24-yarder and a 33-yarder – allowed the Ducks to clinch with a touchdown from former WSU commit Cyrus Habibi-Likio.
Shough, who’s succeeding Justin Herbert as Oregon’s starting quarterback, finished 21 of 30 with 312 yards and four passing touchdowns. He also rushed nine times for 81 yards, while Verdell added 118 yards on the ground and Dye 54.
WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura played well in his second career start, completing 25 of 39 passes for 321 yards and two touchdowns.
His leading receiver was Bell, who reeled in 10 passes for a career-best 158 yards and one touchdown.
“I think he was more in line with the offense. There wasn’t as many off-script plays,” Rolovich said of de Laura. “I thought he was accurate. … I think we took care of the football and we didn’t have any turnovers. … I really liked the competitiveness of the receiver group.”