If Washington State’s football season is as successful as the 2015 version, it will be a happy year for the Cougars and their fans.
But the initial feeling of déjà vu sure is a punch in the gut, one that knocked the breath out of 32,952 fans who watched it happen all over again.
The Cougars’ 45-42 loss Saturday to Eastern Washington University was WSU’s second consecutive season-opening loss to an FCS team from the Big Sky Conference. Once again, a first-time starting quarterback came into Martin Stadium and made the Cougars defenders look silly, while Eagles wide receiver Cooper Kupp was the best player in the stadium of a school that did not think him worthy of a scholarship out of high school.
What made this loss different than last year’s shocking defeat to Portland State was the Cougars did not stumble out the gates, thereby making the game tense and tentative. Sure, WSU’s offense messed around for its first few drives, but the Cougars did initially manage to put itself in control.
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The Cougars took a 21-14 lead on a two-yard touchdown pass from Luke Falk to Gabe Marks, who caught the fade with one hand, in the corner of the end zone. The lead held for all of one play before Cooper Kupp took a pass from Gage Gubrud 75 yards for his own score.
Gubrud was sublime in his first start, completing 34 of 40 passes for 474 yards and five touchdowns. Kupp was incredible, making 12 catches for 206 yards and three scores. He also rushed for 29 yards and threw a 22-yard pass.
Marks was electric in the receiving game with seven receptions for 92 yards and two scores.
Luke Falk led a WSU offense that was doubtlessly productive — he threw for 284 yards and three touchdowns, and the Cougars had two rushing scores as well. But WSU’s offense ran out of gas in the third quarter, when the Eagles took control of the game.
The teams traded blows for nearly two quarters, but the Cougars’ defense finally stepped up and allowed the Cougars to create some distance when Hercules Mata’afa sacked Gubrud on third down with just more than two minutes to go in the half.
Former WSU punter Jordan Dascalo nailed a 48-yard field goal to end the half.
In every sense it was a season-opener and in college football, where there are no preseason games, that invariably means sloppiness. The rash of bad tackling quickly spread throughout both teams, and the penalties (11 for EWU, 12 for WSU) quickly followed. Both teams missed makeable field goals, with Erik Powell’s miss wide left of 38 yards proving especially costly, since it cost the Cougars a chance to make it a one-score game with 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
A flag on Isaiah Johnson-Mack wiped away a Morrow touchdown run, and Falk was sacked by Samson Ebukam on the subsequent third-down play, setting up Erik Powell’s missed field goal.
EWU outscored the Cougars 14-0 in the third quarter and putting the Cougars on their heels. WSU did not score until there was 4:42 left in the game, when Falk reared back and lofted a nine-yard pass to running back Gerard Wicks, who snuck out of the backfield and into the end zone.
But WSU lost the game because of its inability to stop the EWU offense, specifically Gubrud and Kupp.
The Eagles milked the clock with a series of run plays on the subsequent drive, setting up an 18-yard play-action pass to Kupp when forced into a third-down.
One play later, Gubrud faked a handoff and ran 30-yards through the middle of WSU’s defense for the decisive touchdown.