TUCSON, Ariz. – At the point when a fourth-down pass flitted off the fingers of running back Dwight Tardy, the Washington State Cougars were well on their way to a 48-20 Pacific-10 Conference loss to Arizona on a warm Saturday night in front of 50,945 in the desert. Fleeting hope for a miracle comeback – WSU trailed 34-20 at the time – evaporated near midfield at Arizona Stadium.
If Tardy had caught the ball, the Cougars might have scored. He was that open.
In the end, the drop became more symbolic than anything: WSU might quickly be losing its grip on the 2007 season.
Never have the Cougars started 0-2 in conference and gone to a bowl game. The last time they went winless against their first two Pac-10 opponents was two years ago, a season in which they lost their first seven en route to a 4-7 record.
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Quarterback Alex Brink desperately tried to avoid that Saturday night. His passing numbers (35-of-56 for 347 yards and three touchdowns) rank third in school history for attempts and completions.
But he couldn’t keep up alone. His Arizona counterpart, Willie Tuitama, was more prolific against a soft Cougars defense, going 22-of-31 for 346 yards and five TDs – a good chunk of the 567 total yards Wildcats rolled up.
“We got beat,” WSU coach Bill Doba said. “They were quicker and faster than us tonight.”
WSU (2-3) comes home next Saturday to face red-hot Arizona State (5-0), which that won’t have any shortage of high-voltage offensive weapons to test the struggling Cougars, who have surrendered 40 or more points in all three losses.
Brink, at least, gave it a go, with some help from his trusted receivers.
The Cougars trailed 20-7 late in the first half, but two Brink touchdown passes – a 10-yarder to Jed Collins and a 14-yarder to Rogers High product Brandon Gibson 21/2 minutes into the second half tied the score at 20.
Arizona created a break by converting a fourth-and-inches run by Tuitama on its next drive, and maybe got another one when freshman cornerback Chima Nwachukwu, who broke back for an up-for-grabs ball against receiver Terrell Turner, was flagged for pass interference.
The Wildcats moved to the WSU 36. Two plays later, Turner turned WSU’s other first-year cornerback, Devin Giles, around on a go route, and easily hauled in a 27-yard TD pass from Tuitama. That gave Arizona a 27-20 lead with 10 minutes, 49 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Turner did it again seven minutes later, victimizing Giles on almost the same route. He raced 65 yards on the reception to the Cougars’ 1, and Tuitama scored on a sneak for a 34-20 advantage.
Brink led the offense back. Aided by a pass interference call, moving the Cougars to the Wildcats’ 39.
On fourth down, Arizona brought seven players at Brink, who lofted a pass to the waiting Tardy on the right sideline. Tardy slowed up slightly, reached out for the pass and the ball fell off his hands.
Both teams’ chuck-and-catch approach took a back seat early. Eighteen of Arizona’s first 29 plays were runs, mostly to Nicolas Grigsby, who squeezed in and out of creases with enough ease to rack up 75 rushing yards in the first quarter.
WSU grabbed a 7-3 lead on Brink’s 16-yard back-of-the-end-zone pass to Charles Dillon – its fourth opening-drive TD in five games – but that did not decrease Grigsby’s heavy workload, which ended up accounting for a career-high 186 yards.
He had three consecutive carries, taking it to the Cougars’ 25. Two plays later, he cut past linebacker Cory Evans on a pattern to the flat, and Tuitama lofted a pass perfectly in his direction, hauling it in for a 22-yard TD catch, the first of his young career.
Whether a headwind got it, or the ball came out of his hand prematurely, Brink badly missed on a short pass to Dillon. Cornerback Devin Ross picked it off, returning it 24 yards into WSU territory.
Grigsby, a former teammate had four runs in a row, the last gaining 18 yards and setting up Tuitama’s 18-yard scoring strike to tight end Rob Gronkowski, and the Wildcats led 17-7 with 9:47 to go in the first half.
It was 20-7 after Jason Bondzio’s 34-yard field goal almost seven minutes later, but Brink rallied WSU for a late TD, moving the team 80 yards in 2:16 and capping it off with his 10-yard pass to Collins with 37 seconds remaining before halftime.
Romeen Abdollmohammadi’s PAT attempt hit the left upright, and WSU trailed 20-13 at half.