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WSU rallies for win over SMU


COUGARS

We are not only going to give you the unedited versions of our game story and notebook, but we have some thoughts as well. Read on.
••••••••••

• When Nico Grasu's field goal was signaled good and WSU had the 30-27 win, the stands started to empty onto the Martin Stadium turf. Now remember, as overtime was getting started, there was a sea of red-clad, sorry, crimson-clad bodies returning to the stadium. But those who stayed through what turned out to be a pretty interesting ending, I guess they deserved a reward. After all, they never shut up, despite a 17-point, third-quarter deficit. And that had to help right? So rushing the field was something they must have felt they earned. As one observer said, they probably won't get the chance again this year.

And that's the rub. WSU won, but it was a three-point win over a middle-of-the-road Conference USA team. There are no more of those on the schedule. A quick look at the next few weeks, with road games at USC – don't think the Trojans won't be ticked off? – Oregon, Cal, Notre Dame in San Antonio and Arizona only broken up by a home game with undefeated Arizona State doesn't bode well for any other on-field celebrations. So it's little wonder the fans took the opportunity. And bottom line, so did the football team. Despite getting pushed around Martin Stadium for much of the game – heck, SMU had a 39:40 to 20:20 time of possession "edge" – the Cougars found a way to win. And there's no chance that would have happened last season.

• Some other notes. Four more WSU players made their first career starts: Dan Spitz, Jeffrey Solomon, Daniel Simmons and Eric Block. ... WSU has already recovered more fumbles (five) than it did all last season (three). ... Both Travis Long and Anthony Laurenzi recorded the first sacks of their WSU careers. ... Daniel Blackledge's touchdown catch in the second quarter was his first.

• If you're wondering why SMU didn't run the ball more with a 17-point lead, coach June Jones has the answer. "We are not in a formation where we are just going to dominate running the football, so you have to make plays in the passing game." They didn't. On Bo Levi Mitchell's performance, Jones said, "He did a lot of good things today and he made a lot of good throws. He just has to eliminate the turnovers."

• Now the unedited version of the game story ...

PULLMAN – It may have been Nico Grasu's 39-yard overtime field goal that ultimately lifted Washington State University to a 30-27 win over Southern Methodist, but it was their defense that carried the Cougars to their first victory of 2009.

Even Grasu, the hero of last year's Apple Cup, admitted that.

"The defense kept us in the game, put points on the board," said Grasu, whose 37-yard overtime field goal against Washington last season gave WSU its last victory before Saturday. "You couldn't ask for anything more."

Well, maybe. After all, the Cougar defense gave up 504 yards in total offense to the Conference USA's Mustangs. And quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell did pass for 424 yards and two touchdowns.

But the bottom line Saturday at Martin Stadium was the final score. And if it wasn't for a series of big plays turned in by a WSU defense that was on the field for nearly two-thirds of the game, the Cougars had no shot.

"They saved us," WSU quarterback Marshall Lobbestael said. "That's what we're trying to get to. If one side of the ball isn't producing, the other one picks it up."

Or picks passes off.

WSU, which had 10 interceptions all last year, came up with four Saturday, returned two of those for touchdowns and basically sealed overtime with another.

"The defense made plays to get us momentum," WSU coach Paul Wulff said. "We just need plays made and this team will feed off that energy."

The first energy boost came late in the third quarter with the Cougars trailing 24-7.

Mitchell, who had burned WSU for a 46-yard touchdown pass to Terrance Wilkerson before most of the 22,319 had settled in, was 27 of 34 for 316 yards when he tried to find Cole Beasley on a crossing route.

"I saw the quarterback leaning toward one side," said middle linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis. "I cheated over. I was just a lower hole player. The quarterback just threw it my direction and, unlike during the Stanford game, I actually looked this one all the way into my hands.

"I just thought 'run' after that."

Hoffman-Ellis, who is one of WSU's fastest players, did just that for 52 yards and a score. Though the extra point attempt was botched – holder Reid Forrest couldn't get the snap down and ended up throwing an incomplete pass – the Cougars had some life.

The Mustangs, who came in trying to go 3-0 for the first time since 1984, tried to extinguish it with a 5 minute, 29 second fourth-quarter drive that ended in a 45-yard Matt Szymanski field goal and a 27-13 lead.

When the Cougar offense, which would end with just 276 yards, gave the ball back two plays later on a James Montgomery fumble at the SMU 36, it was time for life support.

So the defense, specifically reserve linebacker Myron Beck, supplied it.

On third-and-10, freshman defensive end Travis Long – WSU played three freshman defensive linemen much of the game, with Long teaming with Dan Spitz and Tony Laurenzi – flushed Mitchell. Under duress, Mitchell threw a bullet – right to Beck.

"At halftime we talked about getting a score on defense," Beck said, "to kind of get the offense's motor running."

Beck's motor was going, and he raced 67 to the end zone, giving WSU two scoring interception returns in one game since 1987, when the Cougars did it twice.

Trailing 27-20, the defense got the offense the ball back again on a Brandon Jones interception, but the result was a three-and-out. So the defense got another stop with 2:03 left, forcing a punt that went to the end zone.

"I can't say enough about the D tonight," said receiver Jared Karstetter, who had a say in what happened next.

With Lobbestael completing 7 of 10 passes – he still finished just 24 of 52 for 239 yards – covering 80 yards, the Cougars scored in 1:35, with Lobbestael finding Karstetter in front of Sterling Moore for the score.

After struggling much of the game – the only other offensive score came at the end of the first half and it took a leaping, tip-to-himself 33-yard catch by Karstetter and a Lobbestael bullet to Daniel Blackledge from 3-yards out to get on the board – the offense finally clicked.

"That's definitely fun," Lobbestael said. "Anytime you get to do clutch in a situation like that, especially when the drive ends with a touchdown, it's one of the funnest things on the field."

SMU got the ball first in overtime, and Mitchell tried to win it on one play. But his deep ball to the back of the East end zone had no chance, with Chima Nwachukwu between the receiver and the high floater.

"Don't misread the ball, that's what I was thinking," Nwachukwu said of his third career interception.

Three plays later Grasu trotted on the field, his kick was perfect and WSU was 1-2. And the students, in a pale Apple Cup imitation, rushed onto the field. That they had something to celebrate didn't seem possible just an hour before.

SMU led by 17, Emmanuel Sanders was on his way to career highs in receptions (a school-record 18) and yards (178), Wilkerson (seven catches) and Beasley (eight) were also setting career marks and the WSU offense had been derailed by a lack of a running game (finishing with 37 yards) and two interceptions.

And it had been nearly 15 years since the Cougars last rallied from a 17-point deficit.

"I felt like at a time when our offense needed us ... we stepped up." Nwachukwu said.

•••

• And here's the notebook ...

PULLMAN – The defense had done all it could. Now it was up to Washington State University's offense.

Trailing 27-20 with 2 minutes, 3 seconds left Saturday, the Cougars had 80 yards of Martin Stadium turf between them and a tying touchdown.

Fail and WSU would be 0-3 with five of its next six games on the road.

Instead, the Cougars tied the game with 28 seconds left and defeat Southern Methodist, 30-27, in overtime.

Talk about unexpected. Nothing the Cougar offense had done in the previous 58 minutes indicated it could march down the field and score.

When the drive started WSU had 193 yards in total offense, 308 less than SMU. But the Cougars were prepared.

"That's a scenario you practice quite a bit," WSU offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy said of the final regulation-time possession.

That was part of the pre-drive message he had for quarterback Marshall Lobbestael, who up to that point was 17 of 42 for 159 yards. But there was more.

"I just reminded him of the situations that will come up during the drive," Sturdy said. "Just relaxing, taking what the defense will give you."

The defense gave the short stuff. Two throws for 14 yards got some momentum going. Then Lobbestael found Johnny Forzani for 21 yards to put the ball in Mustang territory.

Two incompletions and a short gain left WSU with a fourth-and-7 from SMU's 42 with less than a minute left. The Cougars had no choice. Lobbestael dropped and tried to hit Jared Karstetter, his connection on a big-pass play at the end of the first half that came over defensive back Sterling Moore.

This time Moore made sure Karstetter couldn't catch the ball, but his over-zealous defense brought a pass interference call. First down at the SMU 34.

"I saw pass interference," WSU coach Paul Wulff said. "It definitely was."

With the new life Lobbestael rifled a bullet to Jeffrey Solomon for 15 yards and a first down at the 19. WSU killed the clock with 42 seconds left, then Lobbestael found Daniel Blackledge for 12 yards to the 7.

On first and goal Lobbestael tried to hit Forzani in the back of the end zone, but the junior couldn't get a foot down. So Lobbestael looked for the next call.

"When coach Sturdy called the last play ... that was something we ran in fall camp, last spring, and we ran it a lot as players in the summer," Lobbestael said. "He knew that we knew it, but it necessarily wasn't in the game plan."

Maybe it should have been.

Karstetter slipped inside Moore, went to his knees and caught the scoring strike with 28 seconds left.

Nico Grasu's extra point tied it and, after a couple SMU plays went nowhere, the teams went to overtime.

"I think I was able to stay on an even keel because I hadn't been performing too well earlier in the game," said Lobbestael, who hit 7 of his 10 passes on the final drive. "I sort of owed it to the rest of the offense because they were playing really well."

•••

Washington State's offense came in without starting left guard Zack Williams, who suffered a high ankle sprain against Hawaii. Then, on the game's fourth play, Guerra limped to the sidelines. The diagnosis: A sprained medial collateral ligament.

Brian Danaher, who started in Williams spot, moved over to the other side of center Kenny Alfred. Steven Ayers slid inside to left guard and Pencer took his place at left tackle.

And, for most of the game, the Cougars struggled to run the ball and pass protect. But in the second half they did better, especially on the latter.

"We need to make our adjustments sooner," Alfred said. "We came out a little bit too tight and we need to be able to relax."

•••

The plan Saturday was to find playing time for freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel. But Tuel never even warmed up.

The decision not to play Tuel was predicated in part, according to Sturdy, on the injuries up front. With Guerra and Williams out, the Cougars were going with a somewhat makeshift offensive line.

"We had some issue in the protection," said Sturdy. "(And) he's a young player. Besides, Marshall is competing, battling. I didn't feel it was the right situation (to go to Tuel)."

•••

• That's it for tonight. We'll be back in the morning with the typical links. Until then …




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Vince Grippi
Vince Grippi is a freelance local sports blogger for spokesman.com. He also contributes to the SportsLink Blog.

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