PULLMAN – Washington State enjoyed considerable advantages in speed, size and overall skill against its lower-level neighbors from across the border.
But that talent gap never really translated to the scoreboard.
WSU was given a tougher-than-expected test from the pesky Idaho Vandals throughout Saturday’s Battle of the Palouse at Gesa Field.
Eventually – in the fourth quarter – the heavily favored Cougars fashioned a bit of separation, then held on, denying their farmland foes on a last-ditch drive to seal an ugly 24-17 win.
“We’ll learn from every part of this,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “We want to execute better. We know we can play better. But we won the game, and that was the one mission coming in.
“You learn who you are. Our guys didn’t quit, they didn’t panic. … When we watch film Monday morning, there will be a lot to learn from. This is not going to steal our joy.
WSU avoided an embarrassing opener for its first-year coach against a new staff at Idaho, led by Dickert’s friend and former coworker in Jason Eck. The Cougs weren’t able to create any breathing room until early in the fourth quarter, when touted transfer quarterback Cameron Ward found true freshman Jaylen Jenkins on a quick pass for a touchdown to open up a 14-point lead.
The Vandals, who were mostly contained by WSU’s star-studded defensive front, answered with their most effective drive of the night, marching 75 yards in eight plays to cut WSU’s lead to one score.
The Cougs couldn’t put the game away on their final series, a methodical drive that spanned 68 yards on 11 plays.
Dean Janikowski’s 23-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left, and Idaho had late life. Taking over from their own 20 with less than two minutes left, the Vandals started rolling fast and moved more than 50 yards as the clock wound down. Idaho QB Gevani McCoy threw a 25-yard pass toward the goal line, but star WSU linebacker Daiyan Henley jumped the pass with a game-clinching interception.
The Cougar defense – spearheaded by one of the top defensive lines in the Pac-12 – tallied seven sacks and four tackles for loss in the run game, dominating Idaho’s Big Sky offensive line for much of the night. Idaho recorded just 29 yards on 17 plays across its final three possessions of the first half managed only 45 net yards over the first five series of the second half. The Vandals averaged 1.8 yards per carry and went three-and-out five times.
“They definitely kept us in the game,” Ward said of the WSU defense.
The Cougar offense – a new version of the Air Raid, installed this offseason – started to find a touch of rhythm in the second quarter after a sloppy first period. WSU coughed up fumbles on its first two possessions, one of which was returned 45 yards for a touchdown by UI cornerback Marcus Harris.
“Bad play all around,” Ward said. “We gotta take ownership in that. We can’t have turnovers on offense. That holds this offense back. … Once we get that corrected, you’re going to see a different offense, for sure.”
Ward passed 25 of 40 for 215 yards and three touchdowns against no turnovers in his Cougar debut. He connected with seventh-year senior Renard Bell for a short TD late in the second quarter to get WSU on the board, then hit standout De’Zhaun Stribling for a wide-open 13-yard score midway early in the third quarter. Outside receivers Stribling and Donovan Ollie led the Cougs’ pass-catching corps, combining for 115 yards on 14 grabs.
WSU outgained Idaho 223-87 in the first half, but the score was tied at 10 after an interception from Chau Smith-Wade set Janikowski up with a 34-yard field goal. The Cougs struggled to sustain drives in the first and third quarters and showed clear jitters, yet their sparse flashes of consistency were enough to outdo the Vandals’ largely listless offensive attack.
Cougar running back Nakia Watson posted an impressive day, recording 117 yards on 18 carries, but he lost a fumble early in the fourth quarter – that didn’t hurt WSU, as edge rusher Brennan Jackson and nickel Armani Marsh logged sacks on the ensuing drive.
“I thought there was some times that we kinda lagged on offense,” Eck said.
The Cougars improved their winning streak over Idaho to 10 games since 2000.
WSU’s schedule doesn’t get any easier next week. Far from it. The Cougars will travel to Madison to take on 18th-ranked Wisconsin. The Vandals will meet Indiana on the road in another guarantee-money game.
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