PULLMAN – Washington State, favored big in Week 1 and entering its season with some decent expectations on the field, had opportunities to separate from Utah State.
The Cougars, whose program has been beset recently by less-than-ideal news off the field, had chances to boost morale in what felt like a must-win opener.
Instead, WSU sustained a crushing defeat.
The Aggies trailed by 12 points early in the fourth quarter, but rumbled back, reclaiming the lead with 11 seconds left on a methodical drive and stunning the Cougars 26-23 late on Saturday night at Gesa Field in front of almost 25,000 onlookers.
WSU’s crowd – its first since late in the 2019 season – was left dejected as the visitors raced around the turf in celebration of their first road win over a power conference team in 50 years.
Utah State, a squad with a first-year coaching staff and low outside expectations this season, took possession with about three minutes left and used a 10-play, 78-yard series to drain the clock.
After hitting consistently on quick throws outside against WSU’s loose coverage, the Aggies set up at the 7-yard line and quarterback Logan Bonner fired the clinching pass through a tight window over the middle to speedster Deven Thompkins, his favorite receiver of the day.
“They were just better than us in that two-minute drill,” WSU linebacker Justus Rogers said. “To be honest, they were the better team tonight. They played better than us.”
WSU’s defense made only one stop in the second half. The Aggies knocked through two field goals, but after forcing a three-and-out late in the third, it appeared the Cougars might manage to finally break away from the pesky Mountain West opponents.
Quarterback Jayden de Laura – who took over for starter Jarrett Guarantano after he went down with an injury early in the second period – guided the Cougs to the 2-yard line. In an odd turn of events, he was then replaced by Cammon Cooper.
Cooper handed the ball off twice out of a wishbone formation, which second-year coach Nick Rolovich figured could do the trick at the goal line. Both runs went for naught.
So WSU settled for its third Dean Janikowski field goal of the night and went up 23-11 with 12:11 left to play.
“I think we could have put that game away,” Rolovich said. “That’s on me, not ending that thing with a touchdown when we got down to the 2.”
Still, the Cougars seemed firmly in control. That is, until Utah State churned out a seven-minute series that ended with a touchdown, then promptly snuffed out three conservative Cougar plays.
“We just kicked too many field goals, weren’t good on third down (3 of 11),” Rolovich said. “We gotta play better than that on offense. I understand that last play with the defense out there, but they (the defenders) held us in that game for a long time. We gotta be better offensively.”
WSU’s run-and-shoot offense was outgained 439-355 by Utah State’s fast-paced attack – installed by new coach Blake Anderson.
“You gotta give coach Anderson and that team credit … the tempo was tough,” Rolovich said. “They tried to get people in space. They just did a really good job.”
The Aggies leaned on their ground game for extended periods and pushed around the Cougars’ defensive front for 220 yards on 45 carries (an average of 4.9 yards per rush).
WSU didn’t record a sack and didn’t put much pressure on Bonner during the final series.
But the Cougs’ defense kept Utah State and its quarterback platoon out of the end zone early, supplying its offense time to find a groove. Once it did, WSU had all the momentum for a stretch in the second half.
Running back Max Borghi burst outside and outran everyone for a 64-yard touchdown midway through the third. He’d only logged six yards on six carries prior to that, and finished with 86 yards on just 11 attempts.
With de Laura looking in rhythm, the Cougars swelled their advantage to 20-11 at 3:16 in the third. The sophomore from Hawaii perfectly placed a pass on a slant to Donovan Ollie, who bullied through a defender for a 12-yard score that lifted WSU to a 20-11 edge.
“I’d say I had that in the back of my mind: We could have put them away,” said de Laura, who passed 12 of 22 for 150 yards and added 42 yards on seven carries.
A wacky first half was overshadowed by the finish. Guarantano, who won a quarterback competition against de Laura this week, was hit-and-miss early. He relied mostly on the short game, completing 8 of 13 tosses for 56 yards.
The Cougs’ offense lacked mojo, starting the game with two jumbled drives before getting on the board with a field goal early in the second.
Utah State’s punt team pinned the Cougs and Guarantano back against their own end zone on the ensuing series, and on third-and-7, Aggie defensive end Patrick Joyner Jr. crunched the Tennessee transfer on a sack for a safety.
Guarantano hobbled off the field and didn’t return. Rolovich said he “got a little banged up” and is unsure of the quarterback’s status.
WSU went into the half leading by an unusual tally of 6-5, with its defense stealing the spotlight.
Rogers forced a fumble, which was recovered by Andrew Edson, and cornerback Derrick Langford jumped a deep ball from Bonner for an impressive pick, then had a big return to set up a field goal.
“I don’t think we got to a point where we showed our full capabilities,” said receiver Calvin Jackson Jr., the Cougs’ top target (59 yards). “We let the defense down tonight.”