WSU Cougars

Improved Cougars still fall short

PULLMAN – No, Washington State did not upset Stanford.

Yes, Toby Gerhart ran over his share of would-be tacklers.

No, the Cougars did not wave a white flag like they did in last year’s humiliating loss at Stanford.

Gerhart ran for 121 yards and two touchdowns, and the Cardinal never trailed Saturday afternoon in a 39-13 triumph. However, this game had an entirely different look and feel than WSU’s 58-0 loss at Stanford a year ago, when some Cougars openly questioned the effort of a few teammates.

“It’s night and day,” quarterback Kevin Lopina said.

“There’s no comparison, there really isn’t,” linebacker Louis Bland said.

“We showed a lot of improvement,” linebacker Andy Mattingly said.

The game was the season and conference opener for both Pac-10 teams. WSU lost by the same score in a season-opening loss to Oklahoma State last year, but Cougar coach Paul Wulff said he came away from Saturday’s game feeling “a hundred times better” about his team compared to the 2008 opener.

“I think you saw a much more physical team out there,” Wulff said. “I think you saw some discipline.

“We took care of the ball. We did a lot of good things.”

The Cougars also did enough bad things to assure defeat. No sooner had the Cougars narrowed Stanford’s lead to 8-3 early in the second quarter than speedy wideout Chris Owusu hauled in a short pass, faked cornerback Brandon Jones out of his shoes and zoomed 63 yards down the right sideline and into the end zone.

The Cougars were still in the hunt when Lopina, a fifth-year senior, capped an impressive opening drive in the third quarter with his first college touchdown pass. That reduced the WSU deficit to 22-10, but Owusu immediately responded by zipping 85 yards untouched to score on the kickoff return.

“It’s devastating when something like that happens,” WSU running back James Montgomery said.

Wulff, his assistants and Cougar players have worked hard to build team chemistry after going 2-11 last year in Wulff’s first season back at his alma mater. Wulff said he was delighted with his team’s intensity and, for the most part, the execution on offense and defense.

“I’m pretty proud of how we did perform,” Wulff said. “And the nice thing is, we can get a lot better.”

Gerhart, a bruising senior running back, carried the ball 23 times. He closed out the scoring on a 39-yard TD run with 5:21 left to play.

“I think we defended their running game pretty darn well,” Wulff said.

The Cardinal ran for 288 of its 481 total yards. The Cougars ran for 104 of their 351 total yards. Neither team had a turnover.

WSU running backs Dwight Tardy (58 yards on 13 carries) and Montgomery (39 yards on 14 carries) looked sharp at times, as did the offensive line. Starting wide receiver Kevin Norrell, who has been battling the flu, did not dress.

Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck showed promise in his college debut. The redshirt freshman completed 11 of 23 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown and carried the ball six times for 53 yards.

“He made some big plays for us,” Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh said.

“He didn’t look rattled one bit,” Gerhart said.

Lopina started at quarterback for WSU and completed 10 of 16 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown. Marshall Lobbestael, as expected, split time with Lopina and completed 8 of 13 passes for 78 yards and no TDs.

With many students out of town on Labor Day weekend, the game drew just 22,386 on a pleasant afternoon. The crowd was the smallest at Martin Stadium since 2001, and the smallest for a home opener since 2000.

The Cougars play their annual Seattle “home” game at Qwest Field next Saturday against Hawaii. Kickoff is at 4 p.m. The Warriors had to rally to beat Central Arkansas 25-20 Friday in Honolulu.