SEATTLE – By halftime, Washington State seemingly was the banner headline on every major national sports website. That all ended when No. 2 Oregon scored 21 unanswered points in the third quarter en route to a 51-26 victory against the Cougars behind 60,929 in attendance at CenturyLink Field, but the game figures to leave no shortage of storylines in its aftermath.
Perhaps the most significant for crimson-and-gray faithful is that WSU (2-3 overall, 0-2 Pac-12) appears to be progressing. One week after a stunning 35-34 loss against hapless Colorado, the Cougars’ prospects of winning another game appeared bleak. But WSU showed enough on both sides of the ball that no longer appears unfathomable when it plays lesser teams.
“I thought we played better than the score indicates,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “Of the games we’ve played this year, I felt it was our most complete. There were a lot of positives even though the result isn’t what I would like.”
The Cougars still made too many mistakes during the final 30 minutes to put themselves in position to upset the Ducks (5-0, 2-0). That was clear after Oregon immediately drove downfield on its first possession of the second half before running back De’Anthony Thomas scored on a 4-yard touchdown run to give the Ducks a 30-19 lead.
Sophomore quarterback Connor Halliday, who completed 33 of 60 passes for 348 yards and one touchdown, immediately followed with an interception that was returned for a 34-yard touchdown by Avery Patterson on a pass intended for true freshman wide receiver Gabe Marks.
It was that kind of game for Halliday, whose inconsistencies at times conjured images of former WSU greats when he used his scrambling ability to create time to make plays. One occurred late in the third quarter on third-and-9 when Halliday scrambled and found junior wide receiver Marquess Wilson for a 16-yard gain.
Wilson, who had 182 yards and a touchdown on 12 receptions, now holds the program record for most career receiving yards. He now has 2,893 career receiving yards, topping the mark of 2,756 held by Brandon Gibson (2005-08).
But Halliday also resembled former Oregon State quarterback Derek Anderson, whose big-play potential oftentimes was mitigated by mistakes.
That occurred on the same drive when Halliday spotted senior wide receiver Gino Simone open in the end zone, but threw an uncatchable ball into the stands. It was that kind of inconsistency resulted in the Cougars scoring just seven second-half points.
A shaky offensive line – WSU allowed seven sacks – did not help Halliday. After five games of watching Halliday, who was slowed to get up several times during the second half, and Jeff Tuel under constant pressure, that seems unlikely to improve. The last hit on Halliday occurred with 4:24 left.
“I’ll be good,” Halliday said. “I just took a couple of hits.”
One play and 11 seconds later, Tuel entered and immediately threw a jump ball to Wilson for a 25-yard touchdown.
“We’ve got two quality quarterbacks,” Leach said. “The biggest thing we can improve on is reading the field under fire.”
And learning how to deal with success. Leach and multiple players said some were a little too excited about their four-point halftime deficit.
“We shouldn’t be surprised we made some big plays,” he said. “We need to go out there and expect to make plays.”
THE COUGARS DID their best work with that on the defensive side. They held Oregon, which entered the game fifth among Football Bowl Subdivision programs with an average of 571 yards per game, to 469 hashes. That could have been even less if WSU had not surrendered an 80-yard touchdown run by running back Kenjon Barner for the Ducks final points in the fourth quarter.
“I thought we did a good job bottling them up other than the explosives,” Leach said.
Junior safety Deone Bucannon, who twice intercepted quarterback Marcus Mariota, felt the Cougars can build on their defensive performance.
“It told us that we can play with anyone,” he said. “I thought we looked like a totally different team.”
Oregon appeared primed for a blowout early when Barner’s 22- and 30-yard touchdown runs sandwiched an 18-yard scoring run by Mariota. The Cougars’ only points during that span came on an 18-yard field goal by Andrew Furney as the Ducks took a 20-3 lead late in the first quarter.
“We started out frantic,” Leach said. “That happens. I’ve had teams who have never come out of it. They know they are playing a good opponent and they try to do too much.
“We gave them two relatively easy touchdowns early. I think if we played with more control, we wouldn’t have. We played pretty courageously throughout the rest of it.”
Both teams played some wildly entertaining games, ranging from Rueben Mayes’ 357-yard rushing performance against the Ducks in 1984 to the Cougars’ late-game surge versus second-ranked Oregon in 2001. WSU seemed to embrace that heritage late in the first quarter. True freshman Teondray Caldwell, who lost a fumbled kickoff earlier, returned the kickoff 92 yards to the Ducks’ 6. Three plays later, senior running back Carl Winston scored on a 2-yard run.
The Cougars’ defense, which allowed 159 yards of total offense during the first quarter, only surrendered a 34-yard field goal by Rob Beard the rest of the half. WSU, which scored on its opening drive of the half on a 20-yard Furney field goal, cut its deficit to 23-19 with 6:10 left in the second quarter on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Halliday to true freshman Brett Bartolone. The Cougars put themselves into position to take the lead into halftime when they drove down to the Ducks’ 17, but they were forced to punt after Halliday was sacked on three consecutive plays.
“Give Washington State credit,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “Offensively, we knew they were going to be a handful. We made a couple of mistakes in the first half.”
But Oregon was determined to not become the latest team upset at CenturyLink Field after the Huskies upset Stanford on Thursday.
“We understood that they probably gave us their best shot,” Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan said. “We focused on finishing the game. We knew they were going to keep fighting. We had to turn up the dial and that is what guys did.”
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME: Patterson's 34-yard touchdown on a Halliday interception gave Oregon a 37-19 advantage early in the third quarter.
CATCH OF THE GAME: Wilson caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Tuel over at least one defender in the end zone during the fourth quarter.
STAT OF THE GAME: The Cougars held Oregon to 469 yards of total offense was is more than 100 fewer than the Ducks' season average.
MISLEADING STAT OF THE GAME: Oregon averaged 6.5 yards per rush, but 80 of those came on one play during Barner's fourth-quarter touchdown score.
LEADING TACKLERS: Cornerbacks Damante Horton and Daniel Simmons and linebacker Darryl Monroe all had six tackles.
NEXT GAME: WSU plays its first Pac-12 road game at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised on Pac-12 networks.