In more than a century of sordid embarrassments attendant to the Washington State football program, the nadir may have occurred Saturday in Pullman’s Martin Stadium, where the Cougars, 30-to-35 point favorites depending on the oddsmaker, choked 24-17 to Portland State of the FCS Big Sky Conference (box score). Coach Mike Leach, who has yet to produce evidence that he is turning around the beleagured program, likely will never live this one down (the box score will probably accompany his obit).
After Steven Long scored on a one-yard run to give the Vikings a 24-17 lead with 2:14 to play, WSU QB Luke Falk had the Cougars on the march, but damaged his shoulder while picking up a first down and was forced to the sidelines. Freshman backup Peyton Bender completed two long throws to get into Vikings territory, but his last was tipped and picked off by Portland State’s Aaron Sibley, sealing WSU’s first loss to a Big Sky foe since a 13-12 setback to Montana in 1947. The Cougars beat Portland State a year ago 59-21.
Washington State appeared well on its way to an easy victory after dominating the first half. The Cougars led 10-0 and would have led by more if not for two red-zone failures, one ending in a field goal, the other in a blocked field goal attempt. The Cougars controlled the clock 20:26 to 8:58, ran 43 plays to Portland State’s 19, had a 287-66 edge in total yards, a 188-5 lead in passing yards, and also ran the ball effectively.
In fact, the historically pass-crazy Cougars uncharacteristically ran 23 times to 20 pass attempts, three rushes shy of their single-game high of 26 in 2014.
But the Cougars couldn’t generate offense in the second half. Falk, who threw a 24-yard TD to Keith Harrington in the second quarter, had one scoring throw in the second half, a five-yard, fourth-quarter strike to Gabe Marks. The Cougars had 85 yards rushing in the first half, only 30 in the second.
Falk completed 27 of 41 for 287 yards with a long gain of 39. Gerald Wicks had 49 rushing yards at halftime, but finished with 63, although that was a career high. WSU ended with 104 rushing yards on 30 carries, most in a game since 2012.
Washington State successfully converted 7-of-8 fourth down plays, most for any NCAA team in a game since 2007. On the other hand, Washington State had an incredible burst of futility in the second quarter when the Cougars had a 94-yard, 20-play drive that ended in a blocked field goal attempt.
Washington State dominated the first two quarters, but began to collapse as soon as the second half commenced, allowing Portland State to go the length of the field on its opening drive to cut WSU’s lead to 10-7. After Portland State forced a 3-and-out, the Vikings quickly tied the game at 10-10 on a 42-yard field goal by Jonathan Gonzalez.
With new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch squirming in the press box, the Cougs couldn’t stop the Portland State running game. The Vikings piled up 235 rushing yards, including 92 by QB Alex Kuresa and 57 more by co-QB Paris Penn. Nate Tago added 28, eight on a TD run in the fourth quarter that gave Portland State a 17-10 lead.
“We never got in a rhythm on offense. They were a real mature team. They hung together, and we got impatient” — Leach
Portland State was 0-14 against current Pac-12 members and 2-32 against all FBS teams before its shocking victory . . . Washington State fell to 79-36-3 all-time in home openers . . . WSU is 45-3 vs. the Big Sky and posted 19 shutouts against Big Sky foes . . . The Cougars are 30-1 vs. a current Big Sky team in Pullman . . . Leach is 12-26 as he begins his fourth season . . . The Cougars, who generated only eight turnovers in 2014, had none Saturday . . . Played in a persistent drizzle, the game drew just 24,302 fans . . . Portland State earned $535,000 for playing in Pullman.
The Cougars head to the East Coast for a 12:30 p.m. PT Saturday contest against Rutgers University. (ESPN2 or ESPNU). Last year, the Scarlet Knights defeated Washington State 41-38 last year at CenturyLink Field. Rutgers Friday dismissed five players from the team for an April episode of home invasion and assaults.