The Cougars beat Arizona 45-42 to improve to 5-2 on the season. It marks their best start since the 2003 Holiday Bowl season

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Washington State continued its road success by pulling out a 45-42 win over Arizona in Tucson on Saturday afternoon. The Cougars are now 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Pac-12, and very much alive in the race for the Pac-12 North division title. The win marked the first time since 2003 that WSU has won three-straight Pac-12 games. The 5-2 record is also the Cougars’ best start since 2003, when they began the season 7-2 and eventually finished 10-3, with a Holiday Bowl win over Texas.

Here’s what the Cougars showed us against the Wildcats:

1. Cougars aren’t playing full throttle for 60 minutes quite yet, but they’re finishing games, and that’s what counts. For now.

Give Arizona credit. It rumbled to life after Jerrard Randall replaced Anu Solomon at quarterback in the second half and gave Washington State a run for its money.

But the heartening thing about the 2015 Cougars is that they’re no longer “Cougin’ it” and instead, learning to finish games. So even after Arizona scored two unanswered touchdowns late in the second half to close the gap to 38-35, there was no sign of panic.

Luke Falk and the offense – electric in the first half but ineffective in the third quarter – simply trotted back onto the field and put together an 11-play, 76-yard drive that culminated in Falk’s fourth touchdown pass of the day to Gabe Marks.

Thereafter, even though Randall put together a miraculous 5-play scoring drive, the Cougs once again never backed down.

Dom Williams did a superb job catching that onside kick from Arizona, and the offense did just enough in the final 44 seconds to get a first down by the nose of a football and put the game away.

“We never did knock them out until the end,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “But I’m proud of our guys. That was a good job.

Leach isn’t entirely satisfied though.

He took his guys to task for trying to defend their lead in the second half instead of playing to deliver the knockout punch.

“We just weren’t doing what we could do. All we have to do is do our jobs just like we did the first half, and part of you doing your job is attacking the other guy,” Leach told Jason Gesser on the Washington State IMG Sports Network’s post-game radio show. “Sometimes there’s this mentality which makes me vomit – we’re ahead by 10 or 17 with most of the second half to play. Let’s preserve the win. This smart player crap, which drives me crazy.”

Leach wants his team to develop that killer instinct. And they’ll need every ounce of that they can muster if they hope to beat Pac-12 North leader Stanford next week.

Still, some of this really stems from the fact that this is a team unaccustomed to winning. The Cougars are still learning to play with a big lead and put away teams.

2. Defense still bending but not breaking

Washington State’s defense gave up some big plays – Randall’s 59-yard run, for instance – but for the most part, the Cougars did a serviceable job against Arizona’s offense, which entered the game as the Pac-12’s top scoring offense, averaging 42.3 points per game.

The Wildcats manage to hit that average on Saturday, but the Cougs were just a little bit better. They held Arizona’s offense to 176 rushing yards – 122 yards under their season average – and stopped the Wildcats on one critical fourth down conversion.

This defense is last in the Pac-12 in allowing third down conversions, but second in stopping fourth down conversions. That tells you something about their spirit and the kind of belief the Cougars are playing with at the moment

The defensive line, specifically, did a stellar job up front to contain Arizona’s ground game.

3. The Cougars’ are finally executing the Air Raid the way it was designed

With eight receptions for 97 yards and four receiving touchdowns against Arizona, Gabe Marks played his way into a sacred stratosphere on Saturday when he became the first Cougar receiver to catch four touchdown passes in a game. Ever.

When you consider the receivers that have come out of WSU, that is pretty incredible.

This means Marks has done something Marquess Wilson, Vince Mayle, Brandon Gibson, Michael Bumpus, Jason Hill and Devard Darling never accomplished in their college careers.

It helps, of course that Luke Falk has become so comfortable with the offense that he’s producing video game numbers. Falk now has 11 touchdown passes in two games. He completed 75 percent of his passes against Arizona (47 of 62 for 514 yards) and arguably played even better than he did against Oregon State the week before (39 of 50, 407 pass yards, 6 TD, 2 INT) because he had zero interceptions in Tucson. Falk has managed the offense with aplomb and he’s doing a solid job of reading defenses – Exhibit A: He had the presence of mind to go under center for the quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter when he saw that the defense had left him an opening.

Ten different receivers caught passes, and Kyrin Priester is developing nicely. He had his first career touchdown against the Wildcats, and looks to be a fine replacement for Dom Williams next season.

Another point to note: WSU finished with 117 rushing yards, to notch its fourth 100-yard rushing performance of the year. This has been crucial for the Cougars’ offense, which did not put up a single 100-yard rushing game in 2014. Balance helps keep defenses honest. That helps earn you yards through the air. No team can be one-dimensional and expect to thrive.

Next up: A big game against Stanford on Halloween that will be broadcast on ESPN. Pullman is also still in the running to host ESPN’s College GameDay. Stanford would help the Cougs’ case if it beats the Huskies tonight to set up a true Pac-12 North showdown.