HOUSTON — In facing another team called the Cougars, No. 20 Washington State needed to take a hard look at itself.
Eventually, the Cougars from the Northwest liked what they saw.
Anthony Gordon fired three touchdown passes, including two pivotal ones in the first 23 minutes of the second half as WSU rose to its first real challenge of the young season to defeat Houston 31-24 in an all-Cougar duel of longtime Air Raid coaches at NRG Stadium.
“I thought we were frantic the first half both offensively and defensively,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “Then when we settled in, I thought we played well in the second half.”
Leach’s Cougars (3-0) trailed 14-7 before Gordon directed back-to-back touchdown drives in the third quarter, with Max Borghi running for the first score and Gordon impressively tossing a 39-yard touchdown pass to Dezmon Patmon for the second.
Those were some of the key moments as Leach outdid former Air Raid disciple Dana Holgorsen in their first head-to-head clash as head coaches.
“Me and him go way back ... it’s fun to compete with him,” Holgorsen said. “I thought our kids played hard and gave ourselves a chance, (we) just came up a little short.”
After rolling to easy home wins against New Mexico State and Northern Colorado to start the season, Washington State was knocked out of its comfort zone on both sides of the ball in the first half.
The up-the-middle runs of quarterback D’Eriq King and his running backs repeatedly burned WSU’s front seven, even as Houston damaged its cause with multiple holding penalties.
Nor did Leach’s more prototypical version of the Air Raid look sharp at first. But Wazzu receiver Easop Winston Jr. blew past two defenders to catch a 39-yard scoring pass from Gordon to tie the score at 7 midway through the second quarter.
Another WSU threat ended with Gleson Sprewell’s end-zone interception late in the half.
Gordon was 36-for-48 passing for 440 yards, with one interception, in the senior’s first high-profile gig as a starting quarterback, a Friday-night ESPN showcase in the home venue of the Houston Texans.
“What I thought was impressive about him is he got better as the game went on,” Leach said. “He got more precise. He got sharper with his throws and was quicker to get his eyes in the right place.”
Another long-overshadowed WSU senior, Brandon Arconado, caught nine passes for 115 yards, while Borghi finished with 40 rushing yards and 61 in receptions.
After Houston (1-2) tightened the score with a field goal early in the fourth, Gordon led a 95-yard drive capped by his 7-yard throw to Travell Harris to make it 28-17.
Blake Mazza added a short field goal with 3:30 left before King scored from 12 yards at the 2:21 mark.
Tay Martin of WSU then recovered an onside kick and Wazzu ran out the clock.
“We don’t want moral victories or any of that ... we didn’t play good enough to win,” Holgorsen said. “Didn’t make enough plays and the ball didn’t bounce our way enough for us to come out of here with a win and that needs to happen next week.”
Martin and Winston wound up with five catches apiece for Wazzu, covering 76 and 70 yards.
King gave the WSU defense fits much of the night as he ran for 94 yards in addition to passing 13-for-24 for 129 yards and no interceptions.
Washington St. 0 7 14 10—31
Houston 0 14 0 10—24Second Quarter
HOU_Stevenson 13 pass from King (Witherspoon kick), 7:33
WST_Winston 39 pass from Gordon (Mazza kick), 5:36
HOU_King 1 run (Witherspoon kick), 2:27
WST_Borghi 1 run (Mazza kick), 10:24
WST_Patmon 39 pass from Gordon (Mazza kick), 7:30
HOU_FG Witherspoon 42, 10:45
WST_Harris 7 pass from Gordon (Mazza kick), 6:43
WST_FG Mazza 22, 3:50
HOU_King 12 run (Witherspoon kick), 2:21
WST HOUFirst downs 25 22Rushes-yards 19-49 39-239Passing 440 128Comp-Att-Int 36-48-1 13-24-0Return Yards 82 15Punts-Avg. 4-37.5 3-48.0Fumbles-Lost 0-0 2-2Penalties-Yards 11-132 8-77Time of Possession 32:06 27:54
RUSHING_Washington St., Borghi 9-40, Gordon 7-16, McIntosh 1-2, (Team) 2-(minus 9). Houston, King 17-94, Carr 9-77, Porter 9-53, Stevenson 2-16, (Team) 2-(minus 1).
PASSING_Washington St., Gordon 36-48-1-440. Houston, King 13-24-0-128.
RECEIVING_Washington St., Arconado 9-115, Borghi 6-61, D.Martin 5-76, Winston 5-70, R.Bell 3-33, Harris 3-29, Patmon 2-52, McIntosh 2-(minus 3), Fisher 1-7. Houston, Stevenson 5-34, Corbin 3-54, B.Smith 2-24, Singleton 1-11, Trahan 1-7, Porter 1-(minus 2).
MISSED FIELD GOALS_Houston, Witherspoon 48.