Poor second half costs Cougars in San Diego
Cougars make key mistakes, and offense stalls as San Diego State scores 28 consecutive points
Seattle Times colleges reporter
SAN DIEGO — Early in the third quarter at Qualcomm Stadium, the air was slowly seeping out of both a hopeful crowd and a San Diego State football team that had lost 19 consecutive games to Pac-12 teams.
It was looking like it would be 20, because Washington State's superlative sophomore, Marquess Wilson, had just taken a little bubble screen pass and bolted 78 yards to give the Cougars a 10-point lead.
A little after that, it all pretty much went to hell for the Cougars, who proved that in their long climb through the brambles back to respectability, there's a process they'll have to master — learning how to win. They surrendered the last 28 points of the game and saw a victory slip through their grasp as San Diego State prevailed 42-24.
Todd Sturdy, the WSU offensive coordinator, pondered my question for several seconds, choosing his words carefully.
"Yeah, it's obviously something any team has to learn," he said. "At the end of the third quarter, we were sitting right where we wanted to be."
The fact is, as much as the Cougars are young and impressionable and unused to the process of stepping on opposition necks when the opportunity is there, there's a measure of coaching responsibility for this one.
Just after Wilson's dazzling catch-and-run — the kid would finish the day with 236 yards on six catches — the Cougars forced the Aztecs (3-0) into a second consecutive three-and-out to start the second half. They were going to get the ball back, and if they could ride the momentum to another touchdown drive, they'd be three scores ahead of San Diego State and hard to catch.
Instead, WSU called for a punt block.
Bennett Bontemps, a walk-on from Rogers High in Puyallup, got a good rush on SDSU's Brian Stahovich, but rolled beneath him, and when there was contact, Bontemps was called for a personal foul. It gave the Aztecs possession at the WSU 47, and it took all of three plays for them to get it into the end zone, cutting the deficit to 24-21 and changing the game completely.
"It was a specific play, for me to go and block the punt," said Bontemps. "It's a terrible feeling, to do that to my team."
I asked WSU coach Paul Wulff if he thought about playing it conservatively there, putting on the punt return rather than the block.
"They (the Aztecs) still had to capitalize," he said, then added of the Cougars, "good teams are going to learn to overcome those things."
But the Cougars are still fragile enough that they need every edge they can get from the sideline. They proved it in an ugly last 25 minutes, committing three turnovers, allowing the Aztecs' nifty Ronnie Hillman (32 carries, 191 yards) a 59-yard touchdown run, and somehow getting flagged for three chop blocks.
With that, the announced crowd of 57,286 was revved up for the annual Sky Show, a deafening postgame fireworks gala. As that took place, the Cougars slung equipment bags sullenly into a cart and walked away with box lunches, having lost a game that was winnable.
There's no doubt they're a lot better than they were a year ago. For much of the game, they had kept Hillman from going off (53 yards at halftime) and even though they couldn't get pressure on quarterback Ryan Lindley (he was never sacked), they were largely keeping the damage off the scoreboard.
But it all fizzled as San Diego State made its charge. This is a good Aztecs team, one that won nine games a year ago, and it was apparent in their determined pass rush in the fourth quarter that they could smell blood. They sacked Marshall Lobbestael six times, and he sullied a 368-yard passing day with four turnovers, two fumbles and two interceptions.
As for the roughing-the-punter penalty, WSU defensive coordinator Chris Ball said, "We talked all week about embracing adversity. We had some adversity in the second half. We didn't embrace it."
Now the Cougars have a bye, having done no more than beat two teams badly they should beat, and lost one that was there for the taking.
"We've got to get better, plain and simple," muttered Lobbestael.
For the Cougars, it has to start from the neck up.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com
About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
firstname.lastname@example.org | 206-464-8281