Robert Anae took a few minutes in the locker room to review in his mind what the 41-17 win over Northern Iowa meant on Saturday.
The Cougars delivered the expected 24-point win over the Panthers before a packed LaVell Edwards Stadium. They raced to a convincing 27-3 lead at the half and amassed 563 total yards at the finish.
But the 16th ranked Cougars basically took the third quarter off.
And it bugged everyone on the squad because it featured three of four silly turnovers.
The Cougars allowed 14 straight Northern Iowa points and the offense coughed up four turnovers in a stretch that definitely took off some luster of the home opener heading into a road game with Washington next Saturday.
Anae was surprised and disappointed at ball security failure by his veteran offense.
"We'd actually done very well with our ball security all during camp, it was one of the better things we did in camp."
I was surprised the Cougars didn't throw the ball to Dennis Pitta 25 times. The Panthers had no answer for the big junior who finished with 11 catches for 213 yards. A few times Pitta was down field all alone waving his hands for the ball. He could have set an NCAA record for catches and yards.
"At times, I thought I was running by myself," said Pitta.
The Cougars looked dominating at times in this game, as they should have been. Then they looked clueless. The offensive line was outstanding. The one visible breakdown was a blind-side sack on Hall by Panthers defensive end James Ruffin that resulted in the second Northern Iowa touchdown.
"On that play, freshman Matt Reynolds just took the wrong (stance) set, simple as that," said quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman. "The rest of the game, in his first ever college game, he played great and even got out and picked up a corner blitz, which is something the backs struggle to do."
Harvey Unga had 18 carries for 64 yards, but those chunks were all effective and when Unga caught six passes for 47 yards, it really hurt Northern Iowa. The FCS team had all it wanted in trying to take away Austin Collie and wideouts Michael Reed and Spencer Hafoka.
Max Hall, who got his bell rung in the second half, was in total control of his game, completing an impressive 34-of-41 passes for 486 yards (198.60 pass efficiency rating) and a pair of touchdown tosses to Reed and Unga. He nearly got a third on a 30-yard pass to his cousin, Reed White, that got called down on the 1-yard line.
"He actually played better after he got his bell rung," Doman said. "He kind of lost focus out there for a few series and that got him back. He's gritty, that's what I like about him. He's a tough kid."
Hall nearly fainted doing post-game interviews, cutting off an interview short before assuring his mother he was OK. It was just part of the game.
Defensively, the Cougars looked stout for most the game. But a Panther gadget play right out of the 2007 Tulsa trick book, in which coordinator Jaime Hill identified before the Northern Iowa hike, stung the Cougars for a 76-yard score, the first visitor touchdown of the game at the 12:12 mark of the third.
"You knew it was coming," said linebackers coach Barry Lamb, "because they had to do something to get back in the game."
Then there was the 69-yard run by Panthers quarterback Pat Grace in the first half. It resulted in a field goal rather than a touchdown, but Lamb said he and the staff will not let those two plays pass they are unacceptable.
A defense that did not allow a 100-yard rusher before the Las Vegas Bowl last year, the Cougars let Grace gain 82 by halftime, 69 of that on one play. It was a quarterback up-cut option keeper that caught the Cougars' linebackers out of position.
Washington's mammoth quarterback Jake Locker, who is significantly bigger, faster, tougher and more feared than Grace, will certainly stare and burn a hole at video of that play.
"I'm a little concerned that we're so careless with the football, ball security," said Anae.
"My overall assessment is I'm pleased with our overall effort, pleased with our intensity. But I'm disappointed with our focus. There were times in the game that was very apparent to everyone in the stadium our focus was not there.
"But for the guys to go through a lull and snap out of it and come back strong, I'm pleased with that and pleased with overall effort but very interested in challenging and working on us being able to maintain focus over the entire game."
For four quarters.
That's the Cougars' quest come Monday."Washington won't let us get away with four turnovers," said Collie.
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