A few keys plays, including a late blocked field goal, prevented the Cougars from staying undefeated in a stinging 39-36 loss at USC.
LOS ANGELES – There wasn’t much that could’ve been said to sweeten the situation, or alleviate the pain Washington State players felt after watching a 13-point lead wither away Friday night at the Coliseum.
No, the Cougars won’t wear their 39-36 loss to USC as a badge of honor, even if they did manage to beat a five-point spread, or threaten one of the country’s most impressive home win streaks, or convince a national ESPN audience – and the 50,000-plus in attendance – they belong on the same stage as SC’s blue-chip stars.
Spending 15 minutes inside WSU’s interview tent after the game, you didn’t get the sense the Cougars (3-1, 0-1) were ready to view their first loss of the 2018 season through the glass-half-full lens.
“It’s pretty frustrating for sure,” WSU freshman running back Max Borghi said. “It was a good game overall, but at the end of the day, just little plays on every side of the ball that could’ve changed the game.”
Yes, a long trail of “what ifs” and “could’ve beens” followed the Cougars back home to the Palouse after they squandered an opportunity to beat USC in consecutive years for the first time in program history and wasted a chance to open with a 4-0 record for the second straight year – something that hasn’t happened in Pullman since the early 1900s.
For as many defensive errors as they committed through the first three quarters, the Cougars probably would’ve used their mulligan on one of a couple plays late in the fourth.
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• The one that drew the most ire from WSU fans – and reasonably – came on first-and-10 as the Cougars were creeping toward the USC end zone with under three minutes to play. As Gardner Minshew released an incomplete pass to Renard Bell, USC outside linebacker Porter Gustin began to wind up and launch himself at the WSU quarterback. A stomach-turning replay of the collision shows Gustin spearing his helmet into Minshew’s, violently jolting the QB’s head back in a whiplash-like motion as he falls to the turf. Officials missed it, Gustin escaped his second targeting ejection in two weeks and the Cougars lost out on a precious opportunity to advance the ball 15 yards. WSU would’ve had first-and-10 from the 15-yard line with about 2:40 to play.
• So, with 1:50 to play and facing fourth-and-six, the Cougars trotted out redshirt freshman kicker Blake Mazza for a tying field goal from 38 yards out. Mazza had smacked a career-long 50-yard kick earlier, but the Cougars had also botched a PAT after going up 30-17 early in the third quarter. The Trojans had spotted a tendency earlier in the game and made an adjustment in preparation for the final kick. WSU guard Christian Haangana had been purposely falling forward while blocking for previous field goals and, after USC linebacker Cameron Smith barked out instructions, Trojans lineman Jay Tufele ran through the line unblocked and stuffed Mazza’s attempt with his left hand. “I saw their guard lunging and falling and so I knew that if we ran it right it would work perfectly,” Smith said. “It was one of those things we practice and planned and it worked our way.”
The “what ifs” and “could’ve beens” turn into coachable moments this week as the Cougars play against 2-1 Utah this Saturday at Martin Stadium.