Down 24-6 at halftime, the Cougars roar back to remain unbeaten in Pac-12 Conference play with 35-31 victory over Beavers.
CORVALLIS, Ore. – You can say one thing for these Washington State Cougars. Every week, they find a new way to struggle, and every week they somehow find a new way to win.
This week, the method-du-jour was to back themselves so far into a corner that defeat was almost certain.
The Cougars’ defense gave up 394 first-half offensive yards to an Oregon State team that went into the Saturday night’s contest at Reser Stadium averaging 347 yards per game. WSU’s offense was equally putrid before halftime, punting three times and fumbling once before finally getting on the board – only to miss the extra point.
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Then, out of nowhere, down 24-6 against Oregon State on the road at halftime, the great comeback began.
After playing their worst first half of the season, WSU somehow rallied from a three-score deficit to beat the Beavers 35-31 on the strength of a fierce 22-0 third-quarter rally.
“I thought the other guy played harder, I thought they wanted to win more than we did,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “I thought in the first half we got out-coached and we got out-played.
“In the second half I thought we were more disciplined about doing our jobs and we did them harder.”
The third quarter was a classic Luke Falk and Gabe Marks exhibition.
But WSU left guard Cody O’Connell gets a best supporting actor credit. O’Connell made a significant difference when he entered the game in the second half and helped the offensive line raise its level of play, specifically in the run game, Leach said.
O’Connell was injured in the second quarter of last week’s win over Arizona State. He warmed up with the team but B.J. Salmonson started at left guard and played until halftime.
With his big blocker back in the lineup, Falk played a nearly flawless quarter after the intermission, going 10 of 11 for 200 yards and three touchdowns in 15 minutes. Falk finished 33 of 46 for 415 yards with a season-high five touchdown passes.
WSU improves to 6-2 to become bowl eligible, and won its fifth straight Pac-12 game, staying undefeated in conference play at 5-0.
The Great Comeback began on the Cougars’ second possession of the third quarter, when Falk hit Jamal Morrow on a short pass that Morrow turned into a 66-yard touchdown reception. Another pass to Kyle Sweet gave WSU a successful two-point conversion and brought the Cougars within two scores of Oregon State.
“That touchdown got us going at least,” said Marks, who finished with eight receptions for 110 yards and two scores.
The defense, which had given up two chunk-yardage touchdowns in the first half, also finally found traction against the Beavers after the break, forcing three-consecutive three-and-outs.
Then it was time for the Falk-to-Marks show. Flushed out of the pocket on second-and-eight and running from the pass rush, Falk desperately hurled the ball toward the left corner of the end zone, targeting Marks even though the receiver had four defenders around him.
“We needed to make some plays, and he threw it up to me – finally,” Marks said “I figured, if I drop this, I’m probably never gonna get the ball again, so I tried to make the play.”
Four black jerseys and one white one all went up for the ball in the same air space. Somehow, Marks came down with it – a 37-yard touchdown reception that ignited the Cougars fans in the 37,081-strong crowd.
So on the next offensive drive, Falk went back to Marks again. This time, he threw the fade, and Marks once again did not disappoint, corralling the ball and coming down with his 33rd career touchdown catch to pass Jason Hill for first on WSU’s career touchdown receptions list.
As Marks ran around excitedly in the end zone and chest-bumped River Cracraft in celebration, the numbers on the scoreboard changed: WSU 28, OSU 24. Suddenly, for the first time all game, the Cougars had a lead.
Of course they would relinquish it again, though. On this night, with the Cougars playing their most erratic football of the season, nothing was a given.
“During Halloween time, at the end of the game, you never know what’s going to happen,” Marks said. “It’s kinda weird. I was just hoping that Halloween was going to be good to us this year, and it was.”
Kaleb Fossum muffed a punt return at about the 15, and Oregon State recovered on the Cougars’ 3.
All it took was a 3-yard run from Ryan Nall – who finished with two touchdowns and 131 yards on 19 carries – and suddenly the Beavers were back on top, 31-28.
WSU running back James Williams then put his stamp on the game.
The redshirt freshman running back picked up 13, 14 and 20 yards on three carries, spinning his way out of tackles to set WSU up at the Oregon State 1-yard line. A 1-yard touchdown pass to Robert Lewis completed the drive, and WSU took a 35-31 lead with 10:19 left in the game.
Oregon State hung around until WSU’s defense came up with a clutch fourth-and-one stop, with Shalom Luani and Frankie Luvu combining to stonewall Nall half a yard shy with 3:53 left.
All that was left was for WSU’s offense to run out the clock and salt away the win right? Sort of.
The Beavers weren’t done with drama for the evening.
Oregon State linebacker Bright Uwoegbu launched at Falk while the quarterback was sliding on the end of a run and was penalized for targeting. To the relief of Cougars fans, even though Falk was slow to get up, and limped off the sideline grabbing at his left knee, he came right back into the game to finish out the drive.
Even so, it took one final desperation heave from Marcus McMaryion at the Beavers’ 16 before WSU finally had the win.
The Beavers surprised a listless, mistake-prone Cougars team, opening the game with 21 unanswered points and reeling off 394 offensive yards in the first half to go into halftime with the biggest lead they’ve had over any team this season.
McMaryion made his third career start Saturday night, and looked poised and in control against a Cougar defense that was missing starting nose tackle Robert Barber, who has been suspended from school until July 2017.
Nall was effective from the get go, dashing through the middle of the Cougars’ defense on an 89-yard touchdown run to open the scoring, and then following with a 19-yard touchdown reception with 2:12 remaining in the first quarter.
The Beavers extended their lead to 21 midway through the second quarter, when quarterback-turned-receiver Seth Collins reeled in a 46-yard touchdown pass from McMaryion to score his first career receiving touchdown over the shell-shocked Cougars’ defense.
When it’s all said and done, despite the good, the bad and the ugly, there was, however, a silver lining.
“Most teams wouldn’t have found a way to win it,” Leach said. “Most teams in the country wouldn’t have found a way to win a game like this two weeks on the road…. We’re very proud to say we did.”