The emergence of redshirt freshman running back Keith Harrington was the brightest spark on an otherwise tumultuous day for Washington State.
PULLMAN — Three games into the season, Washington State has yet to put together a complete game in all three phases.
Saturday at Martin Stadium, the emergence of redshirt freshman running back Keith Harrington was the brightest spark on an otherwise roller coaster of a day for Washington State, which beat Wyoming 31-14 but spent most of the first half trying to get out of its own way.
Harrington finished with 68 yards and a touchdown on six carries. He moved the chains when WSU had trouble getting the passing game in rhythm early on and he had a strong hand in two of the Cougars’ three first-half touchdowns.
Harrington galvanized a sluggish Cougars offense with a 19-yard run on a drive that ended with a 1-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown by Luke Falk. Harrington then dialed up a highlight-reel play to put WSU ahead 21-14 at the half by dancing his way through the entire Cowboys’ defense and dashing down the left sideline on a 36-yard score.
Dom Williams’ acrobatic one-handed 35-yard touchdown grab in the second quarter was the only other first-half highlight for WSU (2-1).
The Cowboys’ brand of power football caught WSU’s defense flat-footed in the beginning. WSU couldn’t seal the edge against Wyoming back Brian Hill, a versatile 6-foot-1, 211-pound bulldozer who had 94 rushing yards by halftime. Hill needed only three touches to pick up 44 yards on the first-quarter drive that ended with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Wyoming quarterback Cameron Coffman to Jake Maulhardt.
On several plays, Wyoming (0-3) also used Hill in a wildcat package, lining him up for the direct snap in similar fashion to how Portland State deployed its mobile backup quarterback Paris Penn against the Cougars.
Wyoming started hot, forcing a three-and-out on WSU’s opening offensive series. The Cowboys then struck quickly, with a 45-yard touchdown pass from Coffman to Tanner Gentry, who beat Marcellus Pippins into the end zone.
Washington State coach Mike Leach was aggravated enough with his team in the first half that he told a sideline reporter the Cougars had to “stop playing fat and lazy” on the offensive line and on defense.
To its credit, the defense shook out of its funk after the half. After being outscored 52-31 in the second half of their past two games, the Cougars finally flipped the script and held the Cowboys scoreless the final two quarters.
“A huge problem for us in the first half was leverage,” WSU defensive lineman Darryl Paulo said. “Coach (Alex) Grinch came in pretty mad about that, and we fixed that, came out in the second half, played hard, kept our leverage, knew our assignments and played fast.”
WSU’s defense held Hill to only 45 rushing yards in the second half and dialed up its pressure on the quarterback. Kache Palacio ended a promising Cowboys’ drive in the third quarter with a big sack on Coffman for a loss of 16 yards on third-and-21. Ivan McLennan sacked Coffman for a loss of 15 to end the third quarter, and Shalom Luani forced a fumble at the start of the fourth quarter, knocking the ball out of Wyoming receiver Gentry’s hands.
Hercules Mata’afa recovered for the Cougars, and the WSU offense mustered enough juice to get Erik Powell in position to convert a 22-yard field goal that gave the Cougars some breathing room.
Then, with 2:46 remaining in the game, linebacker Jeremiah Allison intercepted Coffman deep in Wyoming territory.
Falk and the offense got the ball back at the Cowboys’ 12-yard line, and from that point it took only two plays for the Cougars to put the game away with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Falk to Williams in the back of the end zone.
“I thought Wyoming played harder than us early in game defensively and I thought our defensive unit responded well in the second half. Our defensive unit played real hard in the second half,” Leach said. “One of the brightest spots in this game was that it was a really good team win.”