TUCSON, Ariz. – For the Washington State faithful, Saturday’s game played out like a fantasy.
For former Cougars quarterback Jayden de Laura, now the signal-caller at Arizona, it was a nightmare scenario.
WSU’s defense made life miserable for de Laura, who tossed a career-high four interceptions. He threw picks on three consecutive possessions in the third quarter and the Cougars coasted from there, extending their winning streak to three games with a 31-20 victory at Arizona Stadium.
WSU (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) dealt its ex-QB a lopsided loss and clinched a winning record while knocking the Wildcats (4-7, 2-6) out of bowl contention.
“I just think we were locked in,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said when asked about facing an emotional challenge on the road. “That was the No. 1 word we talked about: focus. Focus is about us. I think they took that to heart. They locked in on what they needed to do. It was never about more than that.
“They didn’t have the emotions of everything that people had talked about. It was just another game against a really good opponent. That’s a really good Arizona team that we just beat on the road.”
The Wildcats stunned UCLA at the Rose Bowl last weekend and came into the game boasting an offense averaging more than 30 points and 460 yards per game behind one of the most productive passing attacks in the country.
Arizona boosted its yardage totals late in the game against WSU, scoring a pair of touchdowns. Otherwise, the Cougars’ defense – which has established itself among the Pac-12’s best – held the Wildcats’ attack in check and rattled de Laura, who never seemed to settle in.
“What a defensive performance, besides the last couple drives,” Dickert said. “I just give credit to the players. … Our defense has been playing lights out all season and I think they wanted to go out there and prove it against a really good offense.”
WSU built a 21-6 halftime advantage . Its offense went quiet after halftime, but the Cougars’ defense denied de Laura at every turn.
A former two-year WSU starter, who rallied the team last year after its midseason coaching shakeup then took off for Arizona, de Laura made a few errant decisions that buried the Wildcats.
He tried to sneak an ill-advised deep ball down the middle of the field midway through the third quarter. WSU safety Sam Lockett III saw it coming. He pounced in front of the intended target and returned the pick 31 yards, setting up a short field goal that put WSU ahead by 18 points.
“I was waiting for one of those (passes) the whole game, and I finally got one,” Lockett said.
On the second play of the ensuing possession, de Laura and a receiver miscommunicated on an out route. The pass went right into the arms of senior WSU cornerback Derrick Langford Jr., who followed a host of blockers down the sideline for a 35-yard pick-six to lift WSU to a game-high 25-point lead.
“I haven’t been in the end zone since high school, so I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got the ball in my hands and it’s time to get in the end zone,’ ” Langford said.
“I feel like we play every opponent the same, no matter who the quarterback is, what school he went to before,” Langford added of facing his former teammate. “That’s my boy, though. But when we’re on the field, there’s no friends.”
De Laura appeared to shake off the two giveaways and guided the Wildcats into the red zone on their next series. Instead, bad turned to worse. De Laura flicked another errant pass over the middle. It sailed off-target and Lockett made a slight dive to secure his second pick.
It didn’t matter that WSU’s offense managed only 44 yards the rest of the way. The deficit was insurmountable for the Wildcats.
WSU capped its defensive effort with one more takeaway. De Laura had a pass bounce off the hands of his intended receiver and float up in the air before landing softly in senior nickel Armani Marsh’s hands. It was Marsh’s first interception of the year. WSU last recorded four picks in a game during its Apple Cup win over Washington last year.
“We knew they were a big-play offense,” Lockett said. “I give a lot of credit to our defensive line. They were moving (de Laura) out of the pocket a lot and it’s tough to throw on the run, so it kind of gave us an opportunity to go up and get the ball.”
The Cougars totaled two sacks and six tackles for loss, and held Arizona to 84 rushing yards (3.8 per carry). De Laura, known for his mobility, didn’t hurt WSU on the ground.
The Cougars’ defensive front harassed de Laura and Arizona failed to finish drives in the first half. Backed up in its territory, WSU forced two turnovers on downs early in the game and held the Wildcats to field-goal tries on their final two possessions of the first half.
WSU’s offense gained 244 of its 354 yards before halftime. The Cougars took a methodical, balanced approach and marched downfield smoothly on four of their five first-half possessions.
Tailback Nakia Watson tallied a short reception touchdown on the opening drive and punched in a goal-line rushing TD to close the first half. The junior logged 86 yards from scrimmage. He has amassed 439 yards and six touchdowns from scrimmage on 59 carries since returning from an injury Nov. 5 against Stanford. WSU totaled 161 rushing yards, averaging 4.4 yards per carry.
“Having Nakia back, he’s a really big part of this offense and (he is) allowing us to keep this balance,” quarterback Cameron Ward said.
Ward darted through a wide lane at the line late in the first half for a 17-yard scoring run.
The Cougars’ threatened to take a 14-0 lead in the first few minutes of the game, but receiver Donovan Ollie lost a fumble in the red zone on their second drive.
“I thought we had an electric first half again,” said Dickert, whose offense experienced a similarly up-and-down performance in last weekend’s win over Arizona State. “I gotta look back at the drawing board of myself and what I need to do to make sure we’re keeping the foot on the gas.”
Ward outdueled his WSU predecessor, playing a safe and efficient game behind a shorthanded offensive line that protected him well. The sophomore transfer completed 25 of 36 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers. He distributed passes to eight receivers.
Ollie led the Cougars with 53 yards on three receptions.
Senior slotback Renard Bell, in his first game back after missing four weeks, had a team-high seven catches for 33 yards. Bell absorbed a big hit in the third quarter and did not return to the game. He appeared to reaggravate his arm injury.
“We’re still evaluating it,” Dickert said of Bell, a seventh-year Cougar. “It might be the same (injury). … We’ll see what the news is, but he’s given this program everything he’s got. He has a smile on his face. He works his tail off. I love the kid.”
One week after stirring the pot, calling the game against WSU “personal,” de Laura completed 28 of 46 passes for 357 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions.
He also fumbled the ball on a sack by WSU edge rusher Lawrence Falatea in the fourth quarter, but the Wildcats pounced on it.
WSU returns home Saturday to close its regular season with the Apple Cup versus No. 15 Washington. Game time hasn’t been announced.
“The Apple Cup is always a big game, but we’re going to treat this opponent the same as we treated (Arizona),” Langford said.
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