Even though the Washington State Cougars have won five games in a row for the first time since 2003, wide receiver Gabe Marks knows these past two victories — their 37-32 triumph over Arizona State on Saturday night and a 27-21 win over UCLA at home the week prior — are too close for comfort for their coach.
“You know how hard it is to win — I am not going to complain about it,” Marks said. “Coach (Mike) Leach is already getting on us about it. We’ll hear more of it (Monday).”
Leach doesn’t care for the needless suspense in the game against the Sun Devils, in which the Cougars took control in the third quarter.
“C’mon, you know the guy,” said Marks with a wry smile. “He wants to score 70 (points) whenever he can, which I’m good with that. I want to do that, too. But I’ll take the (win). We’re in the Pac-12. It’s hard to get a win.”
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Indeed, after losses to Eastern Washington and Boise State to begin the season, the Cougars (5-2, 4-0 Pac-12) are back on their mid-fall roll. They have started 4-0 in conference for the first time in 13 seasons.
“I was pleased our team played as hard as they did,” Leach said. “We didn’t always play together, but we reacted well and recovered when we didn’t.”
After a sluggish start — the WSU offense went three-and-out and punted on its first three possessions — the play that ignited the rally was one that ended a drought.
Robert Taylor became the third Cougar to return a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, joining Bernard Jackson (1971) and Anthony Prior (1991).
Taylor tip-toed down the left sideline in the second quarter to give the Cougars their first kickoff return for a score since 2003.
“I (saw) that green grass, and I had to hit it,” Taylor said. “I thought I had stepped out of bounds for a minute, but I didn’t hear any whistles blow, so I kept going.”
Taylor’s big play was the first of four consecutive WSU touchdowns that gave the Cougars a 31-14 lead late in the third quarter.
And they nearly gave it away.
Down to fourth-string quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole, the Sun Devils — from late in the third quarter on — went almost exclusively to the “Wildcat” formation, with Kalen Ballage, who had a 52-yard touchdown run in the first half, and Demario Richard.
The Sun Devils (5-3, 2-3) scored on Richard’s 1-yard plunge to end the third quarter, and 45 seconds later got Tim White’s 70-yard punt return for a touchdown to trim their deficit to 37-29.
A Zane Gonzalez 29-yard field goal — after a Luke Falk fumble with 4:36 to go — cut it to 37-32, but the Cougars got two first downs on their next drive and ran out the clock.
Falk passed for 398 yards and three touchdowns. His 70 career touchdown passes tied Jason Gesser for third all-time at WSU.
Marks caught career touchdown reception No. 31 on a 52-yard pass in the fourth quarter. He is one score away from tying Jason Hill for the Cougars career touchdown record.