PULLMAN — “Coug it! Coug it!” chanted the small throng of Eastern Washington fans who inhabited Martin Stadium’s east end zone during the late stages of Washington State’s 24-20 win Saturday.
With two touchdowns rescinded by penalties on the Cougars’ final offensive possession and a costly fumble on EWU’s goal line late in the fourth quarter, Eagles fans almost received their wish.
But the upset EWU sought against an FBS opponent for the second consecutive year again ended unsuccessfully. But it went to the final play, when former SMU quarterback Kyle Padron couldn’t connect with any of his three All-America wide receivers on a 32-yard Hail Mary into the end zone.
In 2011, Eastern QB Bo Levi Mitchell was picked at the end of regulation in a 30-27 loss to the Washington Huskies.
This year’s desperation toss was made possible only by a pair of holding penalties by WSU’s offensive line late in the fourth quarter, the first on a touchdown run from Leon Brooks, the other on a spectacular catch-and-run from Marquess Wilson. Freshman running back Teondray Caldwell fumbled earlier in the quarter as WSU was about to take 31-14 lead.
Afterward, Mike Leach wasn’t pleased with his guys up front.
“Our offensive line has to be tougher people,” he said. “Right now they are a little too quick to feel sorry for themselves and let their technique break down, or they get tired. Rather than respond with great technique, we’re going to hold. That will be addressed tomorrow. It will be an experience they won’t forget.
“They’ll be talking about it when they’re my age.”
The trio of gaffes gave the Eagles an opportunity to overcome a 10-point halftime deficit on an afternoon they outgained WSU 469-355 but were burned by two costly turnovers.
“We got to be a team that puts them away, ” Leach said after WSU barely avoided its first loss to a Big Sky Conference school since joining the Pac-10 in 1978. “Both offensively and defensively, we let them off the hook at times. We had them and just let them off the hook.”
The Cougars didn’t have to wait long to net their first touchdown of the 2012 season. After forcing the Eagles to three-and-outs on their first two possessions, Leon Brooks returned a punt 29 yards to EWU’s 41-yard line. Jeff Tuel connected with Marquess Wilson three plays later for a 28-yard gain, then found Isiah Myers for a two-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone on third-and-goal to give the Cougars a 7-0 lead.
Myers had a career day, 58 yards on six catches, two of which were touchdowns.
The Eagles quieted a raucous sellout crowd on the ensuing series when Padron found Nicholas Edwards running unguarded down the right sideline for a 93-yard touchdown. WSU responded with a meticulous, nine-play, 75-yard drive to take a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter.
EWU, which downed Idaho 20-3 in its season opener, didn’t flinch. On third-and-16 from the WSU 37, Padron found Edwards across the middle for a 22-yard gain. The play set up a five-yard touchdown run from Jordan Talley, evening the score midway through the second quarter.
Momentum shifted during a back-and-forth first half when walk-on linebacker Cyrus Coen picked off Padron and returned it 37 yards with time winding down. Tuel seized the quick turnaround, finding Myers again in the back of the end zone for 17-yard score to give WSU a 21-14 lead. Tuel finished 20-26 for 171 yards and two touchdowns but was forced to leave the game in the second half when defensive linemen Jerry Ceja cracked the signal caller after releasing the ball.
Sophomore Connor Halliday went 5-for-11 for 76 yards in relief.
Leach sounded mixed when asked to assess his quarterbacks.
“I thought it was inconsistent,” Leach said of Tuel’s reads. “He did some good things, had some good drives and they do a pretty good job of feeding off him. I thought (Halliday) did a good job of leading them, too.”
Tuel echoed his head man.
“It felt better. There are still things we need to clean up, like Coach Leach said, we’ve got to take the positives from it,” he said. “It’s a win. but we can improve and continue to bud and do things better.”
The game’s numerous big plays and penalties were overshadowed by the least likely of storylines, thanks to Andrew Furney.
The stout kicker from Burlington capped the first half by belting a 60-yard field goal as time expired. The blast was the second longest in school history to Jason Hanson’s 62-yarder in 1991. It also gave the Cougars a 24-14 halftime lead.
But for the second consecutive week, Leach’s Air Raid Offense couldn’t net any second-half points.
“I think on all sides of the ball we’re explosive,” he said. “We’re explosive on offense, defense and special teams. Now we have to be consistent. It isn’t good enough to be a little too quick to think about if we are going to respond to adversity rather than respond to it.”