James Williams (32) scores a touchdown. Williams was the Cougars' most effective receiver, catching 13 passes out of the backfield for 163 yards, both school records for a running back, and two touchdowns. He also added 45 yards on the ground. Photo courtesy of Washington State Football/Twitter
For the first time in Mike Leach's six seasons at the helm, Washington State opened the season with a win as the No. 24 Cougars picked up a 31-0 victory over Montana State at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash.
It was an efficient win and a welcomed change for Washington State fans, who had watched their team lose season openers to FCS teams each of the past two seasons.
"You want to be 1-0, so that's fantastic," Leach said. "Now we just need to move forward from that."
On a night when Montana State elected to largely play soft coverage -- presumably in an effort to limit big plays by quarterback Luke Falk and the Cougars' high-flying aerial attack -- WSU sophomore running back James Williams was the star of the game.
He was the Cougars' most effective receiver, catching 13 passes out of the backfield for 163 yards -- both school records for a running back -- and two touchdowns. He also added 45 yards on the ground.
Falk, a fifth-year senior, took what the defense presented to complete 33 of 39 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns. He completed his first 20 passes of the game, but his streak ended early in the second half when Isaiah Johnson-Mack dropped a pass in the bread basket.
"That was kind of the philosophy going in, just to keep the ball in front of us, don't give up the home run ball," Montana State coach Jeff Choate said. "As we got a little fatigued in the second half, I think our tackling was a concern. But some of that goes to the fact that they've got Pac-12 athletes, and those running backs are exceptionally good players."
Jamal Morrow led the Cougars in rushing with 89 yards and a touchdown on 10 attempts.
Montana State, meanwhile, never could find any traction on offense. The Bobcats gained just 143 total yards and made it across midfield only twice -- once after recovering a fumble. WSU racked up eight tackles for loss, three sacks and an interception.
"I thought the whole team played together well," Leach said. "I thought we had huge contributions on defense, huge (contributions) on offense and special teams, too, so I thought it was pretty consistent all three sides, which I think shows an advanced level that we haven't necessarily had."
Sophomore quarterback Chris Murray was consistently under siege, completing just 5 of 12 passes for 28 yards and getting sacked three times. He did gain 55 yards on the ground, most of which came after scrambling away from pressure.
"We had some serious matchup problems," Choate said, "and even when we were sprinting out they had some pressure dialed up into our face. I thought Chris was very poised and composed. He took some sacks instead of making some negative throws and giving them the ball, which kinda could have led to an avalanche."
The Cougars controlled the game, but it wasn't until Jamal Morrow had a 29-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter that WSU had the game in hand. That gave the Cougars a 21-0 lead.
"I thought we, for the most part, got better as the game went on," Leach said.
Two series later, Williams took a shovel pass 24 yards to the end zone to make the score 28-0, ending any thoughts that the FCS team could pull an upset.
It was all Washington State early on, as the Cougars had their way on offense. Falk took advantage of Montana State's soft defense by picking the Bobcats apart with short passes.
He was 9 of 9 on the first drive for 62 yards, capping it with an 11-yard shovel pass to Williams to give WSU a 7-0 lead.
The Cougars extended their lead to 14-0 on their second drive, as Falk again was a perfect 9 of 9 -- this time, for 89 yards. He beat a blitz to find Tavares Martin Jr. on a 6-yard slant to finish the drive with his second touchdown pass of the night. The two drives ate up nearly 13 minutes of clock.
Meanwhile, the Bobcats struggled to get much of anything going. Montana State's lone explosive play was a 17-yard scramble by Murray after he avoided a sack. The Bobcats finally made it into WSU territory with four minutes to go in the half, but the drive fizzled.
Montana State forced a fumble by WSU's Isaiah Johnson-Mack, recovering the ball just over midfield. Murray moved the Bobcats into field-goal range. But Luke Daly missed a 42-yard field-goal attempt with five seconds remaining in the half.
WSU outgained the Bobcats 217-76 in the first half as Falk completed all 20 of his passes for 175 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Only 8 of Montana State's yards came through the air.
NOTES: With his touchdown passes, Washington State QB Luke Falk passed Connor Halliday (90) for most career touchdown passes in WSU history. He now has 92. ... Former Montana State quarterback and WSU coach Dennis Erickson, who was recently inducted into the Washington State Hall of Fame, was honored during the game. The Everett, Wash., native played in Bozeman from 1966-1968 and led the Bobcats to three Big Sky titles. He later was the head coach in Pullman, Wash., from 1987-1988 before moving on to coach Miami (Fla.), and having NFL gigs with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. ... Washington State came into the game having lost two consecutive season openers to FCS teams (Portland State, Eastern Washington). ... The last time these two teams met was in 2010. MSU led the game in the fourth quarter, but a pair of late interceptions allowed the Cougars to come back and win, 23-22. ... Montana State has now been outscored 296-106 in its seven games against WSU at Martin Stadium. ... Erik Powell's 40-yard FG was his 32nd career make, tying Rian Lindell for the fifth-most FG in WSU history. ... Official attendance: 30,254.