The No. 20 Washington State Cougars used a big second half to surge past the Houston Cougars and remain undefeated, beating their counterparts from the AAC, 31-24.
WSU moved to 3-0 on the season, while Houston dropped to 1-2.
The game was lower scoring than most were expecting, thanks mostly to a first half that featured just seven non-kneel down drives and ended with Houston taking a 14-7 advantage to the locker room. The Coogs had outgained the Cougs 224-173 behind a potent rushing attack that had controlled the clock and the game.
But the second half was more like what everyone was expecting, particularly for WSU fans: The Cougs outgained the Coogs 316-143 — including a yards per play margin of 7.9-4.8 — and outscored them 24-10.
Anthony Gordon threw for 440 yards on 36-of-48 attempts, including three touchdowns and an interception. Brandon Arconado was once again his favorite target, hauling in 9 receptions for 115 yards, both a team high.
D’Eriq King, meanwhile, finished with just 128 yards passing but 94 yards on the ground for Houston.
If Houston had a script for how it hoped the first half would go, it probably wouldn’t be all that different than how the first half actually went.
After shredding its first two opponents from the jump, WSU struggled to find any kind of early rhythm offensively. The first two drives produced just 44 yards over 16 plays — a 2.75 yards per play that was a far cry from the 9.62 average the Cougs carried into the game. Both drives ended in punts.
Meanwhile, Houston controlled the clock and the game with a methodical running attack, moving the ball in the same way that fans were afraid of after the WSU rush defense proved to be shaky last week. The Coogs had just three drives, and each covered at least 58 yards.
The first one ended in a missed field goal, but the second and third ended with touchdowns. King did plenty of damage, but perhaps no play was bigger than the first third down of the second drive. Facing 3rd-and-5 from his own 34, King dropped back to pass. WSU dialed up a perfect blitz. However, King escaped a pair of tacklers in the backfield, and instead of WSU ending the drive with a three-and-out, Houston found itself in the end zone 11 plays later.
WSU found its footing on its third drive, though — Gordon found a trio of receivers to pick up 35 yards on the first three plays, then after a short Max Borghi run capped it off with a gorgeous 39-yard bomb to Easop Winston Jr. to tie the game.
After Houston went out in front again, WSU had about 2:30 to try and tie it. After a good return from Travell Harris, the Cougs quickly drove from their own 43 to the Houston 21 on a trio of Gordon completions. But then Gordon made his first major mistake of the night: Rodrick Fisher had beat his man on a fade, but Gordon never saw the Cover 2 safety who easily drifted over to pick off the pass with just 24 seconds to go in the half. The Cougs came away empty, and trotted into the locker room down a touchdown.
Things immediately got better in the third quarter. Houston started with the ball, but King’s third down scramble on the opening set of downs came up a yard short at his own 44. The Coogs elected to go for it, but not without a bit of confusion, and their snap for the QB sneak with just a second on the play clock was mishandled, and WSU was in business.
Gordon found Borghi three times in the first four plays to get down to the Houston 13, then Tay Martin took a screen down to the 1. Borghi finished it off from there with a trademark goal line run to tie the game at 14.
Houston picked up a first down on its next drive, but couldn’t do more than that, giving the ball right back to WSU after four plays. Gordon went right back to work, finding Arconado on three consecutive passes (with a roughing the passer thrown in) to cover 52 yards as Houston didn’t seem to have a lot of interest in covering the middle of the field. Dezmon Patmon drew his first target on the next play, beating the Coogs over the top for a 39-yard TD to give the Cougs their first lead of the game, 21-14.
WSU got another stop on the next drive and it felt like they could nearly put the game away with another TD, but starting from their own 2-yard line, the drive stalled out when Gordon elected for a fade on 3rd-and-1, which he overthrew.
Houston couldn’t make anything of the next drive as WSU continued to dial up the pressure. That’s when it appeared WSU had come up with the death blow: On the first play, Gordon hit Borghi again, this time on a beautiful wheel route to the sideline, and Borghi outran the entire defense for what appeared to be a 76-yard TD. However, it was called back on an extremely questionable offensive pass interference call away from the throw.
Five plays later, WSU punted. The chance to put maximum pressure on Houston had passed, and a short punt combined with another questionable call — kick catcher interference was called, despite the returner signaling for a fair catch and then trying to block as the ball hit the ground — gave Houston great field position. But the best they could do was a field goal after gaining 20 yards to cut the margin to 21-17.
WSU was finally able to extend the margin to two scores on the next drive. Starting on their own 5-yard line — thanks to a squib kick that was reminiscent of the one WSU hurt Arizona with last year — the Cougars broke through. It almost didn’t happen, as the first pass went off Borghi’s finger tips and nearly was intercepted, but Gordon moved the chains with a scramble and it was on from there: 31 yards to Arconado on a scramble drill, 33 yards to Tay Martin on an inside screen (with a blocking assist from Renard Bell) and then 19 more yards to Martin. The drive finished when Gordon stepped up in the pocket before finding Travell Harris in the back of with a flick of the wrist to make it 28-17.
The Cougs had yet another chance to put the game out of reach when Houston turned the ball over on the very first play to give WSU excellent field position. Two plays later, WSU was on the Houston 3-yard line, but the drive stalled out and the Cougs settled for a field goal to make it 31-17.
Houston took advantage of some soft coverage on the next drive to gash WSU in the middle of the field with runs and short passes to close the margin to a TD, but the onside kick was secured, and Borghi picked up the two first downs WSU needed with runs of 17 and 10 yards to run out the clock.
WSU returns home to face UCLA next Saturday in a 7:30 p.m. PT kickoff from Martin Stadium.