PULLMAN — There were only three things the Washington State Cougars would have done differently in the third and fourth quarter of a 67-63 upset loss to UCLA on Saturday night.
Offense. Defense. Special teams.
“We collapsed in every phase of the game,” coach Mike Leach said. “Every phase.”
The Cougars will cringe this week when they review the six turnovers they conceded to UCLA — a team that had generated just two of its own through the first three games of the season.
They will wince at the special-teams touchdowns — yes, there were two of them — that were allowed in a game decided by four points.
And they will squirm whenever coaches rewind the Bruins’ offensive TDs. It could be a lot of squirming and a lot of rewinding, because UCLA threw for five and rushed for two more. The Bruins managed to score 42 points through the first three games of the season, but put up 50 in a second-half binge that will force the Cougars to take a long look at everything they’re doing on defense.
The Cougars were historically good on offense, but every record book moment, it seemed, was negated by a hapless error, and winless UCLA erased a 32-point deficit to secure the second-biggest comeback in program history, scoring 29 points in a decisive five-minute period between the third and fourth quarter.
Quarterback Anthony Gordon completed 41 of 61 for 570 yards. The redshirt senior threw nine touchdown passes, setting school and Pac-12 records, but he also accounted for three of the six turnovers, even if he won’t be held responsible for all three.
Gordon and the Cougars still had life with 1:07 to play, until UCLA’s defensive line engulfed Gordon on the first snap of the final drive, sending the quarterback crumpling to the turf while punching the ball out.
If the first five WSU turnovers weren’t fatal, the sixth one was. Josh Woods scooped up the fumble, UCLA’s offense returned to the field and Dorian Thompson-Robinson ran out the clock to give coach Chip Kelly his best win in two years at the helm in Westwood, California.
“I just think overall, as a whole unit, as a whole offense, we need to take more pride in holding onto the football,” Gordon said. “Myself included. Interceptions and everything. Giving the other team the ball, giving them more chances to score, putting the defense in a tough spot.”
The Cougars were in the driver’s seat midway through the third quarter, nursing a 49-17 lead, and even after UCLA’s torrid comeback, WSU held a three-point cushion with 2:38 to play. But Easop Winston Jr., on a career night that saw the senior catch four touchdown passes to match Gabe Marks’ school record, couldn’t protect the ball when it mattered after reeling in a 14-yard pass from his former junior-college teammate.
A lengthy review determined the football hit the turf before Winston’s elbow did and UCLA capitalized four plays later, when Thompson-Robinson hit Demetric Felton for a 15-yard touchdown to put the Bruins up 67-63.
It left WSU’s sideline stunned and UCLA’s euphoric. Somewhat like the score itself.
“The second half, as a team, we went out there loose and soft,” Leach said. “Loose and soft and gave them a little momentum and let them back in it. We didn’t tackle. We still haven’t tackled.”
The game produced a Pac-12 record for points scored, with 130, and WSU’s 720 yards of total offense were the second most in a game, second only to the 812 the Cougars posted in a 60-59 loss to Cal five years ago.
WSU fans watched this game and had flashbacks to that one. The Cougars gave up two special-teams touchdowns to the Golden Bears in the 2015 debacle, and weren’t any better against the Bruins, missing a sequence of tackles that would allow Felton to score on a 100-yard kickoff return and Kyle Phillips on a 69-yard punt return.
Five years ago, Cal’s offense gashed WSU for 589 yards. Saturday night, the Bruins did the Cougars in for 657.
UCLA’s up-tempo offense and athleticism seemed to wear WSU’s defense down late, but the Cougars left the game under the assumption things would have been different had they tackled better.
“Personally, I felt they were just doing the same thing,” nose tackle Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei said. “We just weren’t tackling well enough, executing the plays we were meant to make.”
Thompson-Robinson had a career night and should be the only player challenging Gordon for his third Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honor. The UCLA quarterback completed 25 of 38 passes for 507 yards and if he does get the nod over Gordon, it will be because of what he did with his feet, rushing 11 times for 57 yards and two touchdowns.
Felton hauled in seven passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns, and Chase Cota had four for 147 yards and one score.
“I’m probably the happiest man in the world for my boys and I couldn’t stop to cry because just knowing how hard these guys work every day and stuff like that,” Thompson-Robinson said. “You know we put in so much time and effort and to see it all pay off is really special.”
Things are fine in Westwood for the time being, but the mood won’t be as vibrant in Pullman as the Cougars return to practice.
WSU (3-1, 0-1), which came into Saturday’s game at No. 19 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll, continues its trek through the Pac-12 South next week, going on the road to play Utah (3-1, 0-1), which was ranked No. 10 in the country before a loss to USC on Friday night.
“I know that we’re going to stress ball security,” Leach said. “I know we’re going to stress tackling and we’re going to adjust some stuff on special teams.”