The WSU Cougars rallied late, but could not overcome mental errors and a disastrous second quarter as they fell 36-44 Saturday night to the UCLA Bruins.
After trailing by as much as 30 points in the first half, the Cougars chipped away at the Bruins' lead behind a strong defensive performance and a 330-yard, five-touchdown showing from backup quarterback Connor Halliday.
“This is the hardest I’ve seen this team play,"Head Coach Mike Leach said. Harder than really most teams I’ve coached on any individual effort.”
Unfortunately for Leach and the Cougars, the second half surge was not enough to overcome the self-inflicted errors, mostly from their special teams unit, that plagued the team in the first half of play.
The Cougars statistically dominated the Bruins in the first quarter beginning with their opening drive as quarterback Jeff Tuel moved the Cougars down to UCLA’s 22-yard line. But when the drive stalled and the Cougars had to settle for a field goal, things turned sour as UCLA’s Datone Jones blocked Andrew Furney’s attempt, which Sheldon Price scooped up and returned 68 yards for a UCLA touchdown.
The mental lapses continued for WSU as Bruins defensive end Cassius Marsh blocked a 33-yard field goal attempt on the Cougars’ next drive and Jordan Zumwalt blocked Michael Bowlin’s punt on the Cougars third possession of the game.
Fortunately for the Cougars, the Bruins were not able to capitalize and WSU allowed Tuel to hit wide receiver Dominique Williams for a 36-yard gain to move the ball into UCLA territory. Tuel would exit the game a couple plays later with an injury, but Halliday stepped in, finding Williams in the back of the end zone for a six-yard touchdown to tie the game up at seven.
However, any momentum the Cougars built dissipated in the second quarter as UCLA lit up the scoreboard before halftime.
Bruins senior running back Johnathan Franklin began the onslaught by taking a screen pass 16 yards to the end zone to give UCLA a 14-7 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Bruins got the ball right back as Stan McKay stripped WSU returner Teondray Caldwell on the Cougar’s 24-yard line where UCLA defensive back Fabian Moreau recovered the loose ball.
A couple plays later Bruins freshman quarterback Brett Hundley capitalized on the turnover finding Joseph Fauria for a nine-yard score to extend the lead to 21-7.
The Bruins added two points on the Cougars next possession when linebacker Anthony Barr sacked Halliday in the end zone for a safety, and seven more points when they got the ball back from the required kick and Hundley found Devin Fuller for a 10-yard touchdown to push the lead to 30-7.
With touchdowns already from the offense and special teams, the Bruins completed the trifecta of scoring when Marsh sacked Halliday, forcing a fumble that linebacker Eric Kendricks picked up and returned 40 yards for another UCLA touchdown.
After pouring on 30 points in less than 15 minutes of play, the Bruins ended their dominant quarter by blocking another Bowlin punt, their fourth blocked kick of the game.
“It’s kind of befuddling really,” Leach said about the special teams breakdowns. “Because none of them were the same guy, (it was) four different guys. I’ve gone full seasons without getting four kicks blocked.”
Although behind 30 points at half, the Cougars regrouped and looked to put their miscues behind them.
The Cougar defense began the second-half by forcing a UCLA punt, which set the stage for a 10-play, 91-yard drive from Halliday and the WSU offense, capped off with a 9-yard touchdown catch from freshman receiver Brett Bartolone.
Although the Bruins responded with a touchdown of their own on a 2-yard score from running back Jordon James, the Cougars refused to go away as Halliday manufactured another WSU touchdown, this time finding Marcus Mason for a four-yard score to make it a 44-21 game.
With less than seven minutes left in the game, WSU cut into the lead further as Halliday directed a season long 96-yard drive that ended with Williams'second touchdown of the day, this time an 11-yard catch to cut the lead to 16.
Williams finished with seven catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns, filling in for the recently departed Marquess Wilson.
But it was another Williams, this time Kristoff Williams, who made things interesting for the Cougars late in the fourth when his 3-yard touchdown catch cut the lead to 10. After the Cougars successfully converted the two-point try to make it a one-possession game, the comeback effort was halted as WSU was unable to recover the onside kick and the Bruins ran out the clock to hold on for a 44-36 victory.
The loss dropped WSU to 2-8 overall and kept them winless in Pac-12 Conference play. The Cougars will look to snap their seven-game losing streak this Saturday as they travel to Tempe, Ariz., to face the Arizona State Sun Devils.