PULLMAN — Washington State’s first half didn’t inspire hope that the Cougars’ run-and-shoot offense had turned a corner.
WSU entered the red zone three times before the break against Oregon State and came away with just three points.
None of its yards were coming easy. It seemed as though the Cougs were straining themselves, grinding for any positive gain.
Suddenly, it all started flowing.
Like it never had before.
WSU’s offense — which had become known this season for its tendency to get stuck in the mud for long stretches — flipped a switch, and began to glide downfield with ease.
“It was bound to happen,” quarterback Jayden de Laura said of the offensive breakout, sporting a grin.
The run-and-shoot found its legs after halftime and put on its most productive showing of the Nick Rolovich era, tallying four consecutive touchdown drives to turn back the much-improved Beavers 31-24 on Saturday on the Cougs’ homecoming at Martin Stadium.
“There were a lot of people telling them they were a good team before the season,” Rolovich said of his Cougs (3-3, 2-2 Pac-12). “I told them, ‘This is a chance to beat a good team and kinda earn that description.’ ”
De Laura lit it up in the third and fourth quarters, throwing just three incompletions, and totaling 230 yards and three touchdowns. He finished with 399 yards on a 32-of-46 rate.
He marched the Cougs 75 yards on 12 plays over a span of six minutes in the fourth quarter, capping the impressive series with a scoring dump-off to Deon McIntosh, who ran with grit all afternoon.
“We just finished when we got a chance to score in the red zone. When we came in at halftime, we said, ‘We’re going down the field,’ ” de Laura said of the offense. “When we get a chance, we have to punch stuff in. And also, we had big plays.”
McIntosh’s score proved to be the winner. OSU (4-2, 2-1) rode its powerful running game into the red zone on the ensuing possession, but a Cougar defense that’s quickly developing a resilient identity bounced back from a fourth-down pass interference call and made a fourth-and-19 stop, permitting 18 yards before dragging down Trey Lowe at the 5-yard line to seal the win.
“It was coming down to the wire. We wanted to be the ones in control of the game,” WSU edge Brennan Jackson said. “We knew we wanted it to be on our backs. As a defense, we want to be able to stop teams.”
Cougar players rumbled in unison toward the sideline, arms raised, to celebrate their finest win of 2021 with a student section that had been lively all day.
“It should be a confidence boost, or a little fruits of the labor — the work they put in,” Rolovich said. “We’re getting better. We lost some tough games, but the mindset and the team leadership to keep this team going in the right direction, it’s pretty incredible.”
The Beavers had been a proficient defensive squad throughout the season, but they were picked apart by WSU from the beginning of the third quarter to the final whistle.
The Cougs got the ground game moving out of the locker room. Max Borghi burst ahead for 10 yards in the red zone, and de Laura hurried the offense back to the line, calling for the same play. Borghi found a seam to knot the score at 10-all.
A series later, WSU moved 35 yards on six plays before de Laura found Joey Hobert on a slant. Hobert made a hesitation move to shake off a couple of defenders and zoomed 55 yards for a score.
The Cougs, who have been searching for an uptick in explosive plays over the past few weeks, enjoyed some more fireworks four plays later, when Travell Harris collected a zipped ball on a similar slant pattern and had only open field in front of him. Harris picked up 58 of his career-high 147 receiving yards before being caught in the red zone.
Backup slot Lincoln Victor shimmied past three tacklers for a 14-yard touchdown on a screen the next play.
“We got five guys you gotta try to guard, and I’m pretty sure there’s not a team (in the Pac-12) that can guard our five guys. No disrespect,” de Laura said.
The Harris and Hobert catches were two of the Cougs’ three longest gains of the season. WSU had also been emphasizing better play on third downs. It went 8 for 8 on third-down situations in the second half.
WSU registered 11 passing plays that went for 15 or more yards. Its 491 total yards were the most in 10 games under Rolovich. OSU hadn’t allowed so many points in any game this year.
Rolovich said the Cougars were “cleaner with our assignments” and benefited from de Laura’s comfort level in the pocket. The dynamic sophomore didn’t run the ball once. Rather, he stood tall behind his line and scanned the field. He was sacked just once.
“Eye candy” — new formational looks in the run-and-shoot — also played a part in the offensive success, according to Rolovich.
“It’s just trust, and it builds up game after game after game,” de Laura said. “This is probably the best game offensively we’ve had, especially in the second half. I feel like in the second half we did our thing, opened up the offense. We’ve still got way more we can do that we left on the field.”
WSU’s 303 yards in the second half marked a vast improvement in the third and fourth quarters. The Cougs’ run-and-shoot has collapsed after halftime in losses to USC, Utah and in a defense-fueled win at Cal last weekend.
Entering this game, the Cougs were not regarded as a team that would be comfortable in a shootout. The Beavers responded with two quick fourth-quarter touchdowns to keep it deadlocked, but WSU’s offense never faltered down the stretch.
Despite being bruised on the ground by the nation’s No. 15 rushing team to the tune of 309 yards on 45 carries, the Cougar defense was durable enough.
With WSU’s offense lagging in the second quarter, George Hicks III jumped a sit-down route for an interception. Jaylen Watson broke down and made a tackle for loss to force a field goal in the second quarter.
Midway through the third quarter, Jackson preserved the 10-10 score when he dived to intercept a ball that was being juggled by Beaver receiver Zeriah Beason.
“They played their butts off and they have kept us in games this season,” Rolovich said of his defense. “Especially in the first half, to keep that offense to 10 points, I think that’s a really good job.”
WSU settled for a field goal late in the first quarter after a 62-yard grind of a drive. De Laura fired incomplete from the OSU 7-yard line on fourth down in the second quarter. Hicks’ pick with 51 seconds until intermission was wasted when a de Laura throw near the Beavs’ goal line was tipped into the air and intercepted by Omar Speights.
“The two non-scores when we were down in the red zone in the first half, in earlier games I think that could have been an emotional wedge in our ability to move forward with the game,” Rolovich said. “But you go back to the leadership of the team, keeping people focused on the next play, the next opportunity. It just showed some character, and I think this team has a lot of character. I hope the fans and alums have some appreciation for that.”