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John Blanchette: Washington State brings energy to empty Martin Stadium, but lacks execution in loss to Oregon

Oregon running back Travis Dye runs the ball in for a touchdown against Washington State on Saturday at Martin Stadium in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-RE)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – And now the victory is just getting the game in.

But that’s 2020 all over. In our search of fulfillment, it’s set the lowest possible bar.

Two Pac-12 games zitzed last week by COVID-19 protocols. Two more shelved on Saturday – Arizona State-UCLA and Cal-Utah. This time the league went into scramble mode and hastily paired the Bruins and Bears for a Sunday morning alt-kickoff, the scheduling equivalent of drawing up a play in the dirt.

Washington State is one of the lucky ones – two games scheduled and two games in the books. Fulfillment was more elusive Saturday evening, however.

The Cougars might lead the country in COVID prevention – just a handful of positives in a kajillion tests, the school reports – but not much else was prevented in their 43-29 loss to Oregon.

But the school did save a ton on post-game stadium cleanup.

Yes, Martin Stadium finally got the ghost town experience visited upon so many sports venues this year. No one in the stands except for security folks stationed to keep the live bodies out – and, of course, the kitschy cardboard cutouts in the Crimzone, whose major asset was not bailing at halftime. Muzak-level crowed noise. Glenn Johnson was dutifully on the PA, possibly out of sheer muscle memory.

It wasn’t eerie, just empty.

Surprisingly, it seemed to have little impact on the Cougars’ energy.

Wazzu had turned the Ducks over three times before the game was 18 minutes old – all of them somehow collected by defensive back Ayden Hector. Meanwhile, freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura was doing the encore thing after his dazzling debut against Oregon State a week ago, and running back Deon McIntosh continued to dial down any drag from Max Borghi still being on the missing list.

Just one problem: The Cougs turned those takeaways into just 10 points.

OK, it doesn’t sound that horrible. They capitalized on two of three chances. But it felt as empty as the stadium – the Cougs having a reasonable shot at 35 points in the first half and scoring just 19.

“We’ve got to shoot for touchdowns instead of field goals,” acknowledged WSU coach Nick Rolovich. “We had our opportunities to put the game further out of hand.”

Instead, the Ducks did – with explosive long plays that looked like a spooky flashback to 2019.

There was a 57-yard pass against a dreadful coverage breakdown in the final 20 seconds of the first half that allowed the Ducks to pull within 19-14. There were big runs that jump-started two touchdown drives halftime. And, perhaps most damaging, there was a 71-yard touchdown pass play when the Ducks isolated running back Travis Dye on WSU edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. – a mismatch on a blitz that was Ducks quarterback Tyler Shough’s finest moment.

In all, the Cougs surrendered six runs of 21 yards or more – all of them in second-half Oregon scoring drives – and those two killing passes.

“They’re more of a look-to-change-the-play team than we are,” Rolovich said, “and they probably saw some things they liked and checked out of plays. They did some nice things with the back out of the backfield. And I wouldn’t expect that we didn’t make mistakes – there were some mistakes out there.”

And there was some exerting of the Oregon will – particularly in the third quarter, when the Ducks controlled the ball for 11 minutes and outgained Wazzu 191-30.

They’re going to do that to some other Pac-12 schools – Oregon is the best team on the Cougars’ schedule. But if WSU had made more of those first-half opportunities, this shootout might have had more in common with its recent, sometimes confounding, whammy on the Ducks.

The Cougar defense looked like a revelation against Oregon State; this had more of a whiff of here-we-go-again.

Naturally, the Cougars don’t intend for that scent to stick around.

“We just had some mishaps here and there,” said defensive tackle Dallas Hobbs. “We just have to lock in a little more and keep getting better. We’re having spurts of greatness. I think this is going to be a special defense.”

Well, it can’t hurt to believe. Jahad Woods is still out there holding things together at linebacker, and Hector’s opportunism seemed more than just coincidence. But the Cougs had better get the pass rush amped up again, and 269 yards rushing for the Ducks is, well, a big yikes.

Then again, the Cougs are 1-1. There’s one Pac-12 team that hasn’t even played yet.

You can’t count it as a victory. But in this year, it kind of feels like one.