In a must-win game to stay alive in the Pac-12 North title chase, the Cougars rose to the occasion, bottling up Stanford's Bryce Love and hanging on for a crucial win Saturday in Pullman.

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PULLMAN – Washington State likes to insist that every game it plays is equally important, but even these “one-game-at-a-time” minded Cougars were willing to admit that Saturday’s spirited 24-21 win over 18th-ranked Stanford was momentous.

“Everybody had a great deal of respect for Stanford,” said WSU coach Mike Leach. “This is a big win any way you slice it.”

On Senior Day at Martin Stadium, the 25th-ranked Cougars beat Stanford at home for the first time since 2007 to keep their Pac-12 North title hopes alive.

The stakes were plain for all to see: The team that won this game earned the right to maintain control of its  destiny.

“That was the talk all week from the coaches — it’s a three-game playoff race, and we’ve got to win all of them to get to the Pac-12 championship,” said freshman receiver Jamire Calvin, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Luke Falk.

The added bonus? WSU is now 7-0 at Martin Stadium for the first time in school history.

In this must-win game for both teams, the Cougars (8-2 overall, 5-2 Pac-12) prevailed on the strength of their defense. It  held the nation’s leading rusher, Bryce Love, to a season-low 69 yards on 16 carries, and then got a huge late interception by Frankie Luvu to ice the win.

Playing with his family in attendance for the first time in his college career, Luvu, a senior from American Samoa, picked off Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello with 15 seconds left in the game to preserve a 24-21 victory and snap the Cardinal’s five-game win streak.

“It was exciting,” Luvu said. “When the offense was in, I was telling myself, ‘I need to make a play. It’s gonna come to me. But it was all a team effort.’ ”

It was an emotional game for WSU’s 20 seniors, 14 of whom were part of Leach’s first true recruiting class in 2013, and who’ve all seen WSU rise from the bottom of the Pac-12 to the top. The Cougars honored the senior class before the game, and the three seniors who suffered season-ending injuries this year — Peyton Pelluer, Nate DeRider and Robert Lewis — raised the Coug flag to get things started.

Falk rebounded from his benching against Arizona last week to finish emphatically in his final home game by setting a new Pac-12 career passing record with 13,806 yards.

Falk dedicated the win to his paternal grandfather, Jack Falk, whose funeral he attended in Utah on Monday. The normally stoic quarterback welled up as he talked about his grandfather and acknowledged the significance of the win.

“I know he’s with me out there,” Falk said. “I was joking at his funeral that he already had a seat in the stadium ready for the game.”

After the game, Stanford coach David Shaw immediately approached Falk to offer his congratulations, and the quarterback also shared a special moment on the field with his coaches.

“It’s the last time we get to play in Martin Stadium, and the way we won it, against a great opponent in Stanford, a lot of emotions came together when it’s all said and done,” Falk said. “I didn’t really think about it during the game, but once we were able to get the win, I allowed myself to think about some stuff like that and people who’ve helped me in my path, and coach (Jim) Mastro and coach (Eric) Mele and things like that, and all my teammates and seniors, and I got pretty emotional. It’s been a great ride. We’ve gotta finish it right.”

The Cougars’ senior quarterback went 34 of 48 for 337 yards with three touchdowns, though he also threw one costly interception that Stanford linebacker Bobby Okereke returned for a touchdown in the third quarter.

Overall, this one was an entertaining back-and-forth encounter that featured several nail-biting moments for both sides. But ultimately, the Cougars prevailed.

Trailing Stanford 21-17 in the third quarter after Okereke ran his interception back 52 yards for the score, WSU’s offense went through a perplexing dry spell, punting twice. The defense kept things close, though, forcing consecutive three-and-outs to get the offense the ball back with 11:52 left in the fourth.

Slowly, but steadily, the Cougars offense emerged from hibernation to mount its best drive of the afternoon.

With Stanford only rushing four men and dropping everyone else into coverage, WSU’s running backs got some work. James Williams peeled off up the middle for a 12-yard gain, then later picked up another 9. Tay Martin was resplendent on the outside, hauling in a 17-yard pass on a crossing route, then caught a short ball for 3 yards and a first down.

Falk hit Jamal Morrow up the middle for 20 yards, then it was Morrow again, open in the flat, picking up 16 to get the Cougars to the Stanford 11.

Then, there it was, first-and-10, Falk hit  Calvin in stride on another crossing route and the freshman receiver took off for the end zone, front flipping over the goal line for an 11-yard touchdown that allowed WSU to retake the lead, 24-21.

That 11-play, 94-yard drive burned 4:56 of clock. WSU’s offense would come out once more, but could not produce.

So with 35 seconds left, it fell to the defense to ice the win.

On first down, Nnamdi Oguayo dragged Costello down by the leg as he threw it away.

On second down, Costello’s pass to his tight end fell incomplete.

Third down was Stanford’s undoing — Costello’s pass landed in Luvu’s waiting arms and the game-sealing interception electrified the sellout crowd at Martin Stadium.

Stanford (6-3, 5-2) opened the scoring in the second quarter with a 52-yard rushing touchdown from Love. But that was the only long run Love would get all day.  The Cougars defense shut him down completely in the second half, allowing only 4 yards on six carries.

WSU’s defense also held Stanford to a season-low 198 offensive yards, sacked Costello twice and allowed the Cardinal only three of 12 third-down conversions.

The Cougars led 14-7 at halftime on touchdown passes from Falk to Tavares Martin Jr. and Renard Bell. They extended the lead to 17-7 when Erik Powell hit a 41-yard field goal to open the third quarter.

Costello went 9 of 20 for 105 yards, with an interception and a touchdown run in his second career start.

“I thought our defense played well mitigating the run game. I thought offensively, other than an exception here and there, we were really productive because against these guys you don’t get very many plays,” Leach said. “This was (against) a really good team, maybe the strongest, most physical team in the conference, with very talented players. … I thought we played really hard the entire game.”