PULLMAN – In seven years under Mike Leach, the Washington State Cougars have built a potent offense, strengthened their defense and, a more recent development, have gradually transformed Martin Stadium into a considerably difficult place to win a football game if you aren’t wearing crimson and gray.
Eastern Washington visited and won here in 2016, but the Pullman venue and its primary tenant aren’t quite as vulnerable as they were two years ago. On Saturday, the Eagles became the ninth consecutive team to walk out of Martin Stadium with a loss after WSU dominated its FCS visitor 59-24 in front of 32,952 fans.
The Cougars (3-0) will bring their unbeaten record to No. 22 USC on Friday for a Pac-12 opener in Los Angeles while the Eagles (2-1) host Cal Poly on Saturday for a Big Sky Conference opener in Cheney.
A sellout crowd not only watched WSU preserve its win streak at Martin Stadium, which dates back to the 2016 Apple Cup, but saw a glimpse of the Cougars’ potential on offense.
When they’re clicking, they’re a group that can broach the 60-point marker, throw for more than 500 yards and score points from the opening drive to the final buzzer.
“We’ve got young receivers and we’ve got a new quarterback and those guys getting tuned in with each other is starting to happen slowly but surely,” head coach Leach said.
The offense didn’t have any trouble getting off the ground and the Cougars were able to put points on the board in each of the four quarters. They had 14 in the first, 14 in the second, seven in the third and 17 in the fourth – equal distribution that wasn’t possible last game against San Jose State, when WSU scored 24 points in the first two quarters and seven in the last two.
The Cougars believe they’re a team that can score willfully and Saturday, they’d probably tell you, was more like it.
“Winning, putting up 59 points, all that. It’s all fun,” WSU quarterback Gardner Minshew said. “I have receivers that make plays, running backs, O-line that gives you time. I’m having a blast right now.”
Minshew threw two touchdown passes and finished with a career-high 470 yards, beating his previous high of 463 set last season at East Carolina.
Just like he did last season in the American Athletic Conference, Minshew is throwing at a high-frequency rate with the Cougars. Now, though, he seems to be playing with receivers capable of getting a little more out of each of pass. When Minshew threw for 463 yards against Houston last year, he did it while completing 52 passes on 68 attempts. The grad transfer exceeded his yardage plateau on Saturday, but by completing seven fewer passes.
That’s a testament to the skilled receivers he’s discovered in Pullman, such as Tay Martin and Easop Winston Jr., who caught 19 of Minshew’s passes and were on the end of both of his touchdowns. Martin finished with a career-high 13 catches for 149 yards while Winston Jr. had six receptions for 42 yards.
“I think all of it’s just kind of tuning into each other,” Leach said. “… Hopefully, that’s not too optimistic, but I thought that was encouraging.”
Minshew also has the benefit of an elite defense – another reason he’s 3-0 at this point of the season, opposed to the 0-3 record he and ECU sported at this same juncture last season.
The Cougars’ defensive secondary broke down a few times, giving Gage Gubrud and the Eagles some life in the third quarter, when the EWU QB threw two touchdowns to unmarked receivers and twice cut the WSU lead to 11 points.
But Minshew led an important eight-play, 99-yard touchdown drive with 4:37 left in the third quarter to reestablish an 18-point WSU lead. Jahad Woods came up with a key interception later in the period, giving the Cougars’ offense the ball back on EWU’s 27-yard line with 35 seconds to go in the third.
Tracy Claeys’ defense conceded only 372 yards of total offense and forced four turnovers. Woods, Jalen Thompson and Darrien Molton each intercepted Gubrud and EWU’s Dre Dorton fumbled a kick return in the fourth quarter when the score was already decided.
The Eagles will certainly preach ball security this week at practice – the lack of it led directly to 24 Cougars points.
“We did a lot of things that hurt ourselves,” Gubrud said. “Some bad things on my part. Some of those interceptions, inaccurate passes and missed blocking assignments, things like that.”
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