PULLMAN — I swear I won’t use the phrase. I’ll abstain from those two words that make Washington State fans bristle — a tired saying that might be unfair to the program.
But my goodness …
What should have been glee Saturday at Martin Stadium turned almost instantly to gloom. A result that should have sent WSU fans into a frenzy instead sentenced them to a funk.
A 12-point lead with under four minutes to go vanished in front of a national audience. And as No. 15 Oregon picked up a 44-41 win, the Cougs are left to pick up the pieces.
“It hurts. I think there’s going to be great learns from this. You got a lot of kids that are disappointed in there,” Washington State coach Jake Dickert said. “They should be really proud of the way they played and the way they fought, but sometimes you gotta win big football games, you gotta execute in the biggest moments, and Oregon did and we didn’t.”
When future Pac-12 realignment was announced over the summer, there was a feeling that the power conferences would soon be leaving Wazzu high and dry. The story Saturday was supposed to be about how the Cougs have responded by leaving all of their opponents in the dust.
They came into their conference opener with a 3-0 record and a win over Wisconsin of the Big Ten. And when they scored a touchdown on their first drive to establish a lead they’d hold for the next 53 minutes, it looked as if their place as a national threat was solidified.
WSU quarterback Cameron Ward was relentless for most of the day. The sophomore finished the game 37 of 48 for 375 yards and two touchdown passes, going viral on multiple plays via his elusiveness and creativity. One was a flip pass to running back Nakia Watson, in which a would-be sack turned into a 25-yard gain. Another was on fourth and seven on that same drive — when Ward again found Watson after escaping a slew of pass rushers to extend a possession that resulted in a Washington State touchdown.
That’s about when a victory-inspired field rush from the Martin crowd seemed imminent — as the Cougars went up 34-22 with 6:42 remaining. Then, well, they C …
Sorry, I made a promise.
No doubt there were signs that Oregon (3-1, 1-0 in the Pac-12) could stage a comeback. The Ducks were ahead on total offense throughout the game and finished with 624 yards to WSU’s 428. But for much of the contest, the Cougars’ otherwise porous defense became impenetrable in the red zone.
Oregon got inside Washington State’s 9-yard line on each of its first four drives but managed just nine points on three field goals. On the possession it didn’t score, linebacker Francisco Mauigoa intercepted Ducks quarterback Bo Nix at the 5 and returned it 95 yards for a TD.
So many possible narratives for this game … only for it to end with an all-too familiar one.
After falling behind by a dozen, Oregon used 11 plays to march 75 yards into Washington State’s end zone to make it 34-29. On that possession, Nix completed a 21-yard pass on fourth and 2 from the Cougars’ 49 to keep his team alive. And after WSU went three-and-out on the ensuing drive, the Ducks answered with a five-play, 69-yard touchdown trek that took all of one minute. They converted their two-point attempt to go up by three with 1:29 left.
Saturday’s was a wild game well before Oregon’s late-game scores. In a cue-the-Benny-Hill-theme series of events, the officials inadvertently took a second down away from Washington State, and after the Cougars punted two plays later — the refs realized their mistake and gave the ball back to WSU to replay third down. Don’t feel bad if you’ve reread that sentence five times and still don’t get it. It was incomprehensible to everyone in the press box, too.
So perhaps a Ward-led touchdown drive to win it would befit this drama-filled afternoon. Not so much. Oregon outside linebacker Mase Funa picked off the QB at Washington State’s 27 and returned it for a touchdown that gave the Ducks a 10-point lead with 55 seconds left. The Cougars scored a TD with 1 seconds left that either enraged or elated some bettors, but they were essentially empty points.
In short, the Cougs led by 12 with 3:54 to go in their home stadium, then lost to a nationally ranked opponent that scored 29 points in the fourth quarter.
This column was a touch over 760 words. But let’s be honest: It could have been two.