For the first time in six seasons with Mike Leach at the helm, Washington State opened the season with a win as the No. 24 Cougars picked up a 31-0 victory over Montana State.
It wasn’t an overtly impressive victory for the Cougars, but it was efficient, it was effective, and it certainly was a welcome change for WSU fans who had watched their team lose season openers to FCS teams each of the past two seasons.
“You want to be 1-0, so that’s fantastic,” Leach said. “Now, we just need to move forward from that.”
On a night when Montana State elected to largely play soft coverage — presumably in an effort to limit big plays by Luke Falk and the Cougars’ high flying aerial attack — WSU sophomore running back James Williams was the star of the game. He was the Cougars’ most effective receiver, catching 13 passes out of the backfield for 163 yards and two touchdowns. He also added 45 yards on the ground.
Falk — the Cougars’ fifth-year senior quarterback — put together a classic Falk performance, taking what the defense presented to complete 33-of-39 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns. He completed his first 20 passes of the game, but his streak ended on the first pass of the second half when Isaiah Johnson-Mack dropped a throw in the bread basket.
“That was kind of the philosophy going in, just to keep the ball in front of us, don’t give up the home run ball,” Montana State coach Jeff Choate said. “As we got a little fatigued in the second half, I think our tackling was a concern. But some of that goes to the fact that they’ve got Pac-12 athletes. And those running backs are exceptionally good players, Luke was extremely efficient tonight — operated the offense and did what he did. I think their offensive line and particularly their defensive line were as advertised.”
With his touchdown passes, Falk passed Connor Halliday (90) for most career touchdown passes in WSU history. He now has 92.
Jamal Morrow led the Cougars in rushing with 89 yards and a touchdown on 10 attempts. WSU racked up 511 yards of total offense.
Montana State, meanwhile, never could find any traction. The Bobcats gained just 143 total yards and made it across midfield only twice — once after recovering a fumble. WSU had eight tackles for loss, three sacks and one interception
“I thought the whole team played together well,” Leach said. “I thought we had huge contributions on defense, huge (contributions) on offense and special teams, too, so I thought it was pretty consistent all three sides, which I think shows an advanced level that we haven’t necessarily had.”
Sophomore quarterback Chris Murray was consistently under siege, completing just 5-of-12 passes for 28 yards and being sacked three times. He did gain 55 yards on ground, the majority of which came after scrambling away from pressure by WSU.
“We had some serious matchup problems, and even when we were sprinting out they had some pressure dialed up into our face,” Montana State coach Jeff Choate said. “I thought Chris was very poised and composed. He took some sacks instead of making some negative throws and giving them the ball, which kinda could have led to an avalanche. “
The Cougars spent most of the night keeping the Bobcats at arm’s length, but it wasn’t until Jamal Morrow ran in a 29-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-2 midway through the third quarter that it felt like WSU truly took control. That gave the Cougs a 21-0 lead. Two series later, Williams took a shovel pass 24 yards to the end zone to make the score 28-0, and any thought that the Bobcats might make a game of it effectively ended.
“I think our lack of ability to sustain drives kind of wore on our defense,” Choate said.
It was all Washington State early on, as the Cougars had their way on offense. It wasn’t with the kind of fireworks maybe some expected, given the reputation of WSU’s Air Raid, but Falk took advantage of Montana State’s soft defense by picking the Bobcats apart with short passes. He was 9-for-9 on the first drive for 62 yards, capped by an 11-yard shovel pass to running back James Williams to give WSU a 7-0 lead.
The Cougars extended their lead to 14-0 on their second drive, as Falk again was a perfect 9-for-9 — this time, for a whopping 89 yards. He beat a blitz to find Tavares Martin Jr. on a 6-yard slant to the left of the formation to cap the drive with his second touchdown pass of the night. The two drives ate up nearly 13 minutes of clock.
Meanwhile, the Bobcats struggled to get much of anything going. Montana State’s lone explosive play was a 17-yard scramble by Murray after he escaped what looked like a sure sack. The Bobcats finally made it into WSU territory with four minutes to go in the half after Murray again scrambled to move the chains on fourth down, but the drive fizzled.
MSU did get a little bit of life near the end of the half when the Bobcats forced a fumble by Johnson-Mack, recovering the ball just over midfield. Murray was again able to scramble for some yards — enough for Montana State to move into field goal range. But Luke Daly missed a 42-yard field goal attempt with five seconds remaining in the half.
WSU outgained MSU 217-76 in the first half as Falk completed all 20 of his passes for 175 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Only eight of MSU’s yards came through the air.
Leach said he wants his team to “understand that this is a starting point, just focus on improvement, and improvement starts tomorrow.”
Former Montana State quarterback and WSU coach Dennis Erickson, who was recently inducted into the Washington State Hall of Fame, was honored during the game. The Everett, Wash., native played in Bozeman from 1966-1968 and led the Bobcats to three Big Sky titles. He later was the head coach in Pullman, Wash., from 1987-1988 before moving on to coach Miami (Fla.), and having NFL gigs with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. ... Washington State came into the game having lost two consecutive season openers to FCS teams (Portland State, Eastern Washington). ... The last time these two teams met was in 2010. MSU led the game in the fourth quarter, but a pair of late interceptions allowed the Cougars to come back and win, 23-22. ... Montana State has now been outscored 296-106 in its seven games against WSU at Martin Stadium. … Erik Powell's 40-yard FG was his 32nd career make, tying Rian Lindell for the fifth-most FG in WSU history. … Official attendance: 30,254.