The Washington State Cougars had rallied to cut their deficit to four points behind second-ranked Oregon.
WSU players were jubilant as they poured into the locker room at halftime after being serenaded with a thunderous standing ovation from most of the 60,929 fans Saturday at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field.
Uh-oh, Connor Halliday thought to himself.
“I think too many people (players) were a little surprised,” the WSU sophomore quarterback said near the locker room after the game. “We came in here, everyone was pretty riled up.
“I think we’ve got to be able to stay within ourselves. Obviously, that showed by the way we came out and started the second half.”
The Ducks, one of the fastest and most explosive college football teams, scored the first 28 points after halftime. The Cougars held Oregon to a season-low 469 yards, but lost, 51-26.
“It felt like the mindset changed with some players (at halftime),” WSU wide receiver Marquess Wilson said. “Actually, as a whole team.”
The Cougars (2-3 overall, 0-2 Pacific-12 Conference), who claim to be in the best shape of their lives, have been outscored in the second halves of their games, 75-27. WSU holds a 98-88 advantage before intermission, but the Cougars have been outplayed after halftime in every game.
“We’ve got some guys that hang their heads when we need to keep battling,” Halliday said.
WSU coach Mike Leach has openly questioned the mental toughness of some of his players, but he praised his young team for playing “pretty courageously” through much of Saturday’s game.
“It was our most complete game,” Leach said.
Junior safety Deone Bucannon said the Cougars gained confidence by rallying from an early 20-3 deficit (“We started out frantic,” Leach said) to pull to 23-19 at halftime.
“We know now we can play with anybody in the country,” said Bucannon, who recorded a career-high two interceptions.
Wilson, midway through his junior season, had 12 catches for 182 yards and a TD to break the WSU record for career receiving yardage. Brandon Gibson, the former Rogers High of Puyallup star, had held the record of 2,756 since 2008.
“There’s been a lot of great receivers that have come out of Washington State,” said Wilson, who has 2,892 receiving yards. “Being able to do this right now, it’s a great feeling. It would have been a lot better with a win.”
WSU gave up season highs of 51 points, 300 rushing yards and seven sacks. The Cougars’ 25-point margin of defeat and minus-8 rushing yards were season worsts. … Halliday absorbed all seven sacks and limped to the sideline in the final minutes. Jeff Tuel, wearing a light brace on the right knee he injured in the second game, threw for 62 yards and a TD on 4-for-4 accuracy in relief. Leach may not publicly name a starting QB prior to Saturday’s game at 14th-ranked Oregon State (3-0, 2-0). The 3 p.m. contest will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks. … True freshman Teondray Caldwell gained a team-high 23 yards on five carries in his first start. His 220 yards on eight kickoff returns (including a 92-yarder) ranks second in WSU history to Isiah Barton’s 228 yards last year. … The crowd was the largest for a home game at Seattle since the Cougars and Nevada drew 63,588 in 2002. The Cougars plan to play Oregon or Oregon State every year in Seattle. … Regular offensive right guard Jake Rodgers started at right tackle for injured Wade Jacobson. Matt Goetz, WSU’s starting center last year, played right guard in his first start this season. … Senior wideout Gino Simone, who had four catches for 69 yards last season, had five receptions for 65 yards.