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High-flying Washington State finally making payout games pay appropriate dividends

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 5, 2019

By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Will Rodgers III took questions after Washington State’s 58-7 victory Saturday over New Mexico State and lamented that the defense hadn’t fully done its part.

As in, the defense hadn’t posted a shutout.

“It’s OK, but we really didn’t want them to score at all,” the Cougars’ junior defensive lineman said. “I wanted to go out of this game with a shutout. It’s OK, first game you gotta get some things figured out.”

Things like communicating better and completing tackles on the first hit, senior cornerback Marcus Strong said.

“Little things we gotta fix. Nothing too big. Just little things,” Strong said.

Yet that the Cougars could address those issues in a blowout victory is a luxury the program hasn’t enjoyed for all that long. It was only three seasons ago that the Cougars lost two of their nonconference games against non-Power 5 foes: A 45-42 shootout against Eastern Washington and a 31-28 road loss at Boise State when Washington State’s comeback bid fell short.

Since then, though, the Cougars have gone 8-0 in such contests, with another one looming Saturday against Northern Colorado.

By the end of the third quarter last Saturday, the Cougars had taken out their starters, giving valuable live game reps to their backups.

Quarterback Gage Gubrud entered on the fifth play of the Cougars’ last third-quarter drive, one that bridged into the fourth. Gubrud capped it with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Renard Bell, the graduate transfer’s ninth touchdown pass at Martin Stadium but first as a Washington State (rather than an Eastern Washington) quarterback.

Gubrud and senior Trey Tinsley alternated drives the rest of the game. Gubrud finished 9 of 11 for 76 yards; Tinsley completed 1 of 3 attempts for 11 yards.

Their 14 combined attempts were more than Washington State backups had thrown in a nonconference game (not including Tyler Hilinski’s 25-of-33 night in WSU’s comeback win over Boise State in 2017) during Mike Leach’s entire eight years with the program.

The win over New Mexico State was the Cougars’ most lopsided nonconference victory over that span, besting by one point the team’s 56-6 win over Idaho in 2016. The Cougars scored on their first 10 possessions and punted just once thereafter.

The victory also marked the first time the Cougars had amassed more than 600 yards of offense in these contests since 2014, when they had 706 in a 59-21 win over Portland State.

Some of the improved nonconference results are due to playing easier opponents. New Mexico State was 3-9 last season; San Jose State, which the Cougars shut out 31-0 last fall, went 1-11.

In contrast, from 2014 to 2016 when the Cougars lost four of six games to non-Power 5 schools, two such defeats came to Boise State and Nevada (24-13). Both came on the road, and those teams finished 10-3 and 7-6, respectively.

But the other two during that stretch came at home to Football Championship Subdivision foes, both from the Big Sky Conference: Eastern Washington (45-42) and Portland State (24-17).

Another Big Sky team comes to Martin Stadium on Saturday, before the Cougars close out their nonconference schedule at Houston. From there they return to Pullman and open Pac-12 play against UCLA.

None of those teams has a particularly potent offense, presumably giving the Cougars more opportunities to work out those kinks and to rack up three more victories before a road test at Utah to close out September.

While that nonconference slate won’t necessarily do the Cougars any favors in the College Football Playoff rankings later this season, winning big like they did last week has its benefits.

“Just gotta keep it rolling,” Rodgers said, “keep improving.”

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