Washington State wasn’t supposed to start the season 0-2. Not this year, not after the way the Cougars took the Pac-12 by storm last season, posting their first winning record in more than a decade and making everyone believe WSU’s time had come.
For the past week, WSU players and coaches alike stated repeatedly that last year’s team was not this year’s team, and that the onus is on the 2016 Cougs to find their own identity. Perhaps the Cougars are right.
Two games into the year, these Cougars are still searching. But after their late-game theatrics in the 31-28 defeat Saturday night against Boise State, there just might be a light at the end of that tunnel. That light might have burned just a little bit brighter with some better time management in the last minute of the game.
After a second key fourth quarter interception by its defense, WSU trailed 31-28 and the offense had the ball on its own 20-yard line with 53 seconds and two timeouts remaining.
Two quick passes netted 8 yards each and took little time. Then a pass for no gain cost a lot of time when the Cougars decided to spike the ball and not call a timeout. When an attempt to get a first down came up a yard short, the Cougars were left 55 yards away from the end zone and with only four seconds.
Quarterback Luke Falk and WSU coach Mike Leach both said after the game that they thought Marks had managed to get the first down, and if so, the clock should have stopped automatically to allow the chains to move.
“We threw to Gabe, and I think as a team we thought he had the first down,” Falk said. “Didn’t think we needed to use it, they spotted it short, called the time out and eight seconds got run off right there. It was an unfortunate situation. Would have been nice to know the spot earlier and things like that, but we just ran out of time.”
Falk’s last ditch Hail Mary got batted down by Boise State’s Raymond Ford as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
Down 24-7 midway through the third quarter, the Cougars finally came together and put up a fierce rally, outscoring Boise State 14-7 late in the game thanks to two momentum-shifting interceptions in the final five minutes.
Senior free safety Shalom Luani made an emphatic return from his one-game suspension, recording two well-timed interceptions of Broncos’ quarterback Brett Rypien.
Luani’s first pick came late in the second quarter, and he returned the ball 28 yards to set up Falk and the WSU offense at the Boise State 26. Thanks to Luani’s big play, the Cougars finally got on the scoreboard with 42 seconds left in the first half when Falk hit Jamal Morrow with a shovel pass on third-and-six, and Morrow rolled into the end zone behind a block by Eduardo Middleton.
Luani’s second interception came with 4:24 remaining in the contest and with WSU down 31-21 to the Broncos.
Once again, the pick breathed life into WSU’s offense, and in a play reminiscent of his four fourth-quarter comebacks from 2015, Falk needed only seven seconds to hit Gabe Marks for a 33-yard touchdown reception that put WSU within striking distance of the Broncos.
But the WSU defense wasn’t quite done.
This time, defensive back Charleston White provided the clutch play when he intercepted Rypien in the end zone on a pass meant for Boise State receiver Cedrick Wilson that set up the Cougars’ last-minute effort.
Falk went 55 of 71 for 480 yards and four touchdowns, while Tavares Martin had a career-high 12 receptions for 158 yards and a score.
The Cougs ended the game strong, but started out maddeningly slow. WSU hurt itself with penalties again, committing 10 infractions (to Boise State’s three) a week after a 10-penalty outing against EWU. Between Luani’s two interceptions, the Cougs struggled to finish drives.
In a two-minute diatribe after the game, a visibly aggravated Leach questioned his team’s toughness and said that would not be allowed to continue.
“I think as coaches to this point we’ve failed to make our team as tough as it needs to be. That’s gonna change,” Leach said. “First of all, we beat Boise State in virtually every category. Except toughness. We walk out there and we decide that Boise is tougher than us and Boise is convinced they’re tougher than us too, and until the fourth quarter we didn’t do a thing to change that.
“Outperformed them in a ton of different ways but we just aren’t tough enough. As a football team we have to get one helluva lot tougher, and right now we’re not very tough.”
The offense sputtered for most of the night, converting only 11 of 22 third-down attempts, and going down 7-0 early after Falk threw a pick-six to Boise State cornerback Tyler Horton on the Cougs’ opening drive.
WSU’s offense struggled through its first four offensive possessions with little to show for itself aside from a slew of negative plays and a blocked field goal attempt by Erik Powell, who also missed a field goal against the Eagles last week.
“We just came out flat, didn’t respond to adversity very well. It took us too long to get started and when we did it was too late,” WSU running back Jamal Morrow said.
Meanwhile, Rypien, the nephew of former WSU great Mark Rypien, marched the Broncos 88 yards down the field and running back Jeremy McNichols vaulted over a scrum of Cougs defenders at the goal line to go up 14-0.
The Cougars defense was the brightest spot of the night, forcing three three-and-outs and three turnovers in WSU’s losing effort.
For the first time in his two seasons at WSU, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch opted to call plays from the sideline instead of from his usual vantage point in the press box.
Perhaps buoyed by Grinch’s steadying presence on the sideline and Luani’s return in the secondary, the Cougars’ defense looked less jittery against the Broncos than it had against EWU.
Boise State went into the locker room with a 17-7 lead at half time, and Cougars defense held strong through the first half of the third quarter, with cornerback Darrien Molton recording two breakups on back-to-back plays on Boise State’s opening drive of the second half to force the Broncos to punt.
“We haven’t played to our full potential yet, and when we do, it'll be scary for the other teams, but until then it’s just ‘what if,’” Morrow said.