PULLMAN – The first half was stellar. The second half was sloppy. But the Washington State Cougars didn’t let a sluggish finish overshadow their fast start.
Before halftime, WSU piled up 291 yards and limited the visitors from Arizona State to 61 yards and zero points. The Cougars surged to a four-touchdown lead in the second quarter, then were held scoreless and managed only 65 yards after halftime.
Still, a lopsided first half was enough for WSU, which clinched bowl eligibility with a 28-18 victory over the Sun Devils on a bitter, foggy Saturday afternoon at Gesa Field.
“We need to be a little bit more mature to handle leads,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said. “There’s a lot of work to do, but at the end of the day, we won it – we won it ugly.”
Early on, the Cougars (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12) seemed poised for an easy win. The Sun Devils’ first eight possessions resulted in seven punts and a turnover. WSU’s offense had little trouble marching down the field, using quick passes and a healthy rushing attack.
Tailback Nakia Watson, coming off a career day in WSU’s 52-14 rout of Stanford last weekend, ran for more than 100 yards in the first half and punched in three short rushing touchdowns. He finished with 116 yards and three scores on 20 carries. Watson broke free for three runs of 20-plus yards.
“Let’s remember that Nakia is probably about 75% out there, gutting it out,” Dickert said of the junior, who missed two games last month with an injury. “He has given us a spark in the past two games. It’s really easy to see. He’s giving us tough, hard, physical yards.”
ASU’s offense couldn’t stay on the field for more than six plays per possession during the first half. At halftime, the Cougars had run 20 more plays than the Sun Devils (3-7, 2-5), who were averaging 2.2 yards per snap against WSU’s 6.1 yards per play.
Sun Devils quarterback Trenton Bourguet was benched after starting 3 of 10 through the air, including an errant pass in the second quarter intercepted by Chau Smith-Wade. The WSU cornerback returned the pick 28 yards to the ASU 4-yard line, setting up Watson’s second TD.
“I guess he just didn’t see me in the window,” Smith-Wade said. “When you’re going out and getting after guys, (opponents) have no choice but to change it up and see what another guy can do. We just did a great job as a team getting after their offense.”
Cougars edge Andrew Edson logged one of WSU’s four sacks to stall ASU’s first drive with backup QB Emory Jones under center. The Cougars fashioned a 28-0 advantage with a methodical drive, capped by Watson’s third TD with 3 seconds remaining until haltime.
“Our tempo was working very good and so was our rushing game,” WSU receiver De’Zhaun Stribling said of the first half. “I felt like we were pounding the ball and also perimeter blocking very well.”
After halftime, the Cougars didn’t “keep our foot on the gas,” Stribling noted.
The Cougars recorded 40 yards on their first series of the third quarter. They netted 25 yards across their final four possessions, punting four times and committing a turnover on downs in the second half as ASU gathered momentum.
WSU’s offense played the second half without right guard Ma’ake Fifita and senior slotback Robert Ferrel due to injuries.
The Cougars surrendered three sacks and QB Cameron Ward completed 4 of 7 passes for 31 yards after halftime. Ward finished 22 of 37 for 219 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers.
Jones (15 of 23, 186 yards, two TDs) and standout tailback Xazavian Valladay (134 yards and a TD on 21 attempts) spearheaded a late ASU rally. The Sun Devils scored three touchdowns on their final four drives. WSU’s defense made a fourth-down stop in the red zone on the other possession.
“When we needed it the most … our defense kept it to a two-possession game,” Dickert said. “Credit to those guys for refocusing.”
ASU outgained the Cougars by 207 yards in the second half.
“A team doesn’t want to quit,” WSU linebacker Daiyan Henley said of ASU’s turnaround. “Those guys got a couple of plays on us. We can build on that going forward and be sure that we can hold. We all wanted a doughnut on the board. We all wanted a shutout. That’s what we were aiming for. We fell short of that tonight, but it’s another opportunity next week. It feels better to go over these plays and make corrections after a win.”
Despite the night-and-day performance, the Cougars are bowl eligible for the seventh consecutive full season heading into the final stretch of their campaign.
Riding a two-game winning streak, WSU travels to the desert next weekend for a Saturday matinee against Arizona.
“They earned it, ground it out,” Dickert said. “It wasn’t ideally the way we wanted to finish the game.
“This team wants to finish, they want to keep competing. They earned an opportunity to keep playing together.”
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