Washington State took a meager gathering of fans on a thrill ride at CenturyLink Field Thursday night, and ultimately, it ended disastrously for the Cougars, who lost their 2014 season football opener to Rutgers, 41-38.
Rutgers scored with 3:24 left, and it was hardly out of the question for WSU in this back-and-forth game to drive the length of the field, win the thing and rescue the night.
It wasn’t to be. WSU got one first down to the Cougar 42, but Connor Halliday was sacked for an 8-yard loss on the next play. On fourth and 13, Halliday lofted a touch pass over the middle to slot man River Cracraft, but Rutgers safety Johnathan Aiken, pursuing from behind, belted the ball from Cracraft’s hands, and it was over.
Only 30,927 witnessed the game, some 10,000 less than WSU had drawn for its next-lowest-attended game in a 12-game series at CenturyLink that now ends.
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Midway through the fourth quarter, the Cougars seemed poised to take a stranglehold on the game. In the see-saw affair, they had a 38-34 lead and they forced a rare Rutgers punt from the Scarlet Knights’ 16.
But WSU receiver River Cracraft, returning punts this year as well, fumbled at midfield and Rutgers’ Anthony Cioffi wrestled the ball from a Cougar. Nine plays later, six of them rushes by rugged Paul James, and Rutgers had a 41-38 lead with 3:24 left.
After relinquishing the lead against a Rutgers comeback in the fourth quarter, the Cougars nudged ahead, 38-34, when they drove 67 yards in six plays, the last a 5-yard pass from Connor Halliday to slot Rickey Galvin on which Galvin juked safety Lorenzo Waters at the 2. The pass put Halliday at 504 yards passing for the night, and he wasn’t done.
Rutgers scored the first 10 points of the fourth quarter to come back from a 31-24 deficit. The Scarlet Knights, who led the entire first half, regained the lead on a 29-yard pass from Gary Nova to John Tsimis that turned WSU corner Tracy Clark around.
Trailing 21-17 at halftime, the WSU offense had come out first in the third quarter. Connor Halliday threw for two touchdowns in the period and was 13 of 15 for 150 yards.
The first WSU possession in third quarter ended in Halliday’s 7-yard slant over the middle to Cracraft, giving the Cougars their first lead of the night.
Rutgers, though, playing a ball-control game with running back Paul James, came back and knotted the game at 24 on a 36-yard field goal by Kyle Federico before Halliday moved the Cougars into a 31-24 lead on a 14-yard post route over the middle to Isiah Myers, who leaped high and came down with it.
After Federico hit another field goal, the Cougars were in position to take a double-digit lead with another touchdown march. Instead, they went out meekly, three-and-out, and Rutgers took over and went ahead on the Nova-to-Tsimis strike.
From the outset, the Cougars were on their heels defensively. On Rutgers’ first play from scrimmage, quarterback Gary Nova threw to wideout Leonte Carroo, who beat the fifth-year senior — but inexperienced —Tracy Clark, and Carroo outlegged safety Teondray Caldwell to the end zone.
The play covered 78 yards, and 16 seconds into the season, the Cougars were trailing by a touchdown.
They played in fits and starts much of the first half. Their second series carried to the Rutgers 6, where WSU faced a fourth-and-one. Connor Halliday threw over the middle to rangy Vince Mayle, who stretched the ball past the Rutgers 5, but his knee hit in front of the first-down marker and Rutgers held.
Earlier, Halliday had looked shaky, pitching an interception to Rutgers corner Justin Goodwin at the Knights’ 38.
Just after Mayle was stopped, Nova returned the favor for the Cougars. He threw to a receiver who didn’t see it coming and WSU linebacker Tana Pritchard intercepted easily and carried it to the Rutgers 2.
WSU couldn’t knock it in from there, and this time, coach Mike Leach settled for Erik Powell’s 22-yard field goal.
But an ominous pattern was setting in. WSU couldn’t stop the Rutgers run, and James punished the Cougars on the ground. He carried the last four of six straight Scarlet Knight runs, and when he scored from a yard out early in the second quarter, it was 14-3, Rutgers.
Finally, the WSU offense warmed to the occasion. Halliday threw a nice medium-range touch pass to Dom Williams, who wove his way 64 yards all the way to the Rutgers 9. It took another four plays, but on third down, Halliday threw a 4-yard out for a score to Isiah Myers.
It didn’t stay that way long. Four plays into Rutgers’ next series, James took a pitch, headed left and broke past WSU linebacker Darryl Monroe and raced down the sideline for 56 yards to give the Knights a 21-10 lead.
Unlike the first quarter, at least the Cougars were answering now. With 4:52 left before halftime, Halliday marshaled WSU downfield with first-down throws to Mayle, Myers and Rickey Galvin. Then Mayle, lined up left, juked corner Nadir Barnwell and Halliday lofted a perfect 25-yard touchdown pass to him, making it a tenable 21-17 halftime deficit for WSU.
|Halliday hits 500 mark|
|Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday has thrown for more than 500 yards three times|
|557||Oregon, Oct. 19, 2013||58||89||4||4||Loss, 62-38|
|532||Rutgers, Aug. 28, 2014||40||56||1||5||Loss, 41-38|
|521||California, Oct. 5, 2013||41||67||1||3||Win, 44-22|
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com