PULLMAN - The Oregon Ducks brought the nation's leading offense to Martin Stadium on Saturday afternoon, and Washington State fans were well aware they might witness a merciless beating of a young Cougars team that has one of the worst defenses in the nation.
Instead, the Cougars made the third-ranked Ducks sweat a bit en route to a 43-23 victory that could easily have been closer.
“We went out and played hard and grew up in some areas,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said. “Now they know they can kind of play at that level. They also know what they’ve got to get to.”
Big plays made the difference in the game. The Ducks (6-0, 3-0 Pac-10) scored three touchdowns of 34 yards or longer and intercepted a pass near the goal line that would have pushed WSU within a touchdown late in the third quarter.
“Our players played improved football,” Wulff said, “but we had some individual breakdowns.”
The last-place Cougars (1-5, 0-3) also had some individual highlights. Wide receiver Jared Karstetter set career highs with 10 catches and 106 receiving yards; quarterback Jeff Tuel completed 25 of 40 passes for 245 yards and a touchdown; and true freshman middle linebacker C.J. Mizell had game highs of nine solo tackles and 12 total tackles in his first start.
“The Cougars are a strong team and will only get better in time,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “When you have a good quarterback, good things will happen. I really like what I see in Jeff Tuel and I told him that after the game.”
“That was very nice of him,” Tuel said.
The Cougars held Heisman Trophy candidate LaMichael James to 136 rushing yards – he came into the game averaging 178 – on 25 carries. Fifty-five of those yards came on a play that ended with one of James’ two lost fumbles.
“I thought our defense did a damn good job (against James) ... he’s a hell of a player,” Wulff said. “He’s very quick and he’s very fast. He’s got excellent vision, and he’s tough.”
James scored three times, including an 84-yard scamper on a catch-and-run play less than a minute after Logwone Mitz scored to give WSU a 14-8 lead late in the first quarter.
The Ducks, who started the day leading the nation with 56.6 points and 569.2 total yards per game, amassed 252 rushing yards, 304 passing yards and 556 total yards Saturday. Sophomore quarterback Darron Thomas went out with a shoulder injury in the second quarter, but senior backup Nate Costa completed 13 of 15 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown and ran the ball eight times for 84 yards and another TD.
Wulff continues to bemoan poor offensive line play, which contributed to four more sacks of Tuel and another lackluster day of running the ball.