Washington State opened the season with its first home loss to a team from the Big Sky Conference as Portland State beat the Cougars, 24-17. Quarterback Luke Falk injured his throwing shoulder late in the game, though coach Mike Leach insists he’s “100 percent healthy.”
PULLMAN — In Washington State’s history, the Cougars had not lost to a team from the Big Sky Conference since 1947, a stretch of 18 games.
That streak ended Saturday, when Portland State came alive in the second half and beat the Cougars, 24-17, at rainy Martin Stadium.
It marked the Cougars’ first loss to an FCS team in 20 outings.
Last time WSU lost to a Big Sky team, 13-12 vs. Montana
As if that wasn’t bad enough, quarterback Luke Falk left the game when he was injured after a fourth-down run late in the fourth quarter. Falk picked up enough yards for the first down, but was upended and landed hard on his throwing shoulder.
Trainers tended to him immediately and helped him off the field. The severity of his injury is unknown. Cougars coach Mike Leach doesn’t comment on injuries, and he didn’t budge from that stance when asked about Falk’s condition after the game, saying, “He’s 100 percent healthy, just like virtually all our players.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Peyton Bender entered the game under the toughest of circumstances, with the Cougars trailing by a touchdown, on their own 37 with 1:18 remaining.
Bender’s first two passes were incomplete, and even though he hit Dom Williams for an 18-yard reception on third-and-10, all hope was extinguished when his next pass was intercepted by PSU’s Aaron Sibley to give the Vikings the ball with 42 seconds left.
Ultimately, the 1-yard rushing touchdown Portland State running back Steven Long scored with 6:47 remaining held up as the winning score, and the Cougars began the season 0-1 for the fourth straight year.
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How did things get to that point?
An announced crowd of 24,302 saw the Cougars fumble four times and suffer shaky performances in every phase of the game.
WSU had started the day on a promising note, running on seven of its first 10 plays before getting on the board first with a 21-yard field goal from Erik Powell.
At the time, it didn’t seem to matter much that the Cougs had settled for a field goal instead of a touchdown.
But that set the tone for the day.
The offense moved the ball — the Cougs had 411 yards of offense to PSU’s 294 — but stalled in the red zone, settling twice for field-goal attempts.
Special teams had its own issues. One of Powell’s two field-goal attempts was blocked, Tavares Martin Jr. dropped a kickoff return but managed to recover, WSU struggled to handle a pooch kick and Kyrin Priester fumbled and lost a punt return deep in Viking territory, opening the door for PSU to score on an 8-yard Nate Tago rush.
The defense limited PSU to 66 offensive yards in the first half, but had no answer when the Vikings came out hot in the second and scored 17 unanswered points.
Quarterbacks Alex Kuresa and Paris Penn decimated the Cougars with their legs and Kuresa finished with 92 rushing yards while Penn had 57, including a 4-yard rushing touchdown in the third quarter.
“We weren’t doing a good job tackling that quarterback. So they got him involved and ran him more,” Leach said. “We didn’t tackle very good. We had people in the wrong places and things like that.”
That problem wasn’t exclusive to the defense. The offense didn’t take the field on the same page.
“It was a lot of stuff going on,” said running back Gerard Wicks, who finished with 63 rushing yards. “The running backs didn’t get the call from the quarterbacks, the offensive line didn’t get the call from the quarterbacks, just a lot of stuff going on.”
Leach termed the offensive problems “incomplete communication.”
“It was more like there were times when (the play call) didn’t get communicated all the way around,” Leach said. “(Falk would) call something and then somebody wouldn’t be on the same page, whether they were distracted and not looking or Luke didn’t communicate it to the front or that type of thing.”
Falk went 27 of 41 for 289 yards and threw two touchdown passes — a 24-yarder to Keith Harrington in the second quarter, and a 5-yard score to Gabe Marks to keep WSU in the game in the fourth quarter — but it wasn’t enough.
“We didn’t execute,” offensive lineman Gunnar Eklund said. “We didn’t do what we’d done in Wednesday’s practice, didn’t do what we did in Lewiston.
“Like coach said, it doesn’t mean anything when you work hard all summer and you can’t translate to the field.”