The free-fall continues for Washington State.
WSU lost its third straight football game Saturday, falling 33-17 to Stanford on a rainy, miserable afternoon before a demure gathering of 30,280 in 85,5000-seat Stanford Stadium.
The Cougars led 14-0 in the second quarter when, as coach Mike Price put it, “a lot of different phases broke down.”
Amazingly - perhaps even laughably - the slumping Cougars remain in the center of a six-team race for the final two bowl bids allotted the Pacific-10 Conference.
At 5-5 overall and 3-4 in the Pac-10, the Cougars must beat Washington next week in the Apple Cup to stay in the running. “If we play like we played today, we will not win,” senior tight end David Knuff surmised. The momentum started to shift Stanford’s way with 3:29 left in the second quarter, when the Cardinal blocked Tony Truant’s 48-yard field-goal attempt on fourth-and-4.
Stanford (5-5, 4-3) needed just five snaps to halve the deficit, the key play being a 43-yard pass from Chad Hutchinson to tailback Anthony Bookman.
If the blocked field-goal try was a jab to the forehead, Troy Walters’ 75-yard punt return barely 3 minutes later was an uppercut to the sternum, brass knuckles included.
The 5-foot-8, 170-pound sophomore picked up a highlight-film block from Tim Smith, then weaved through WSU’s kick coverage for the tying touchdown with 22 seconds remaining in the half.
“The punt return really was huge,” WSU linebacker Johnny Nansen said. “That was the turning point of the game.”
The momentum carried into the third quarter as Stanford, which had deferred possession after winning the opening coin toss, took a 21-14 lead on the half’s third play.
It was third-and-11 when Hutchinson exploited WSU’s safety blitz by finding Damon Dunn on a quick screen over the middle. Dunn followed the downfield blocking of Walters on what would become a 58-yard touchdown reception.
After Truant’s 40-yard field goal pulled the Cougars within 21-17 midway through the third quarter, Stanford prevented a comeback by putting increasing pressure on WSU quarterback Ryan Leaf.
Defensive end Kailee Wong was particularly troublesome, allowing Smith, a sophomore free safety and special-teams ace, to freelance.
With the Cardinal clinging to its 21-17 lead, Smith ended WSU’s next two possessions, forcing a Leaf fumble and coming up with an interception.
The turnovers led directly to 10 Stanford points, providing a 31-17 lead that seemed much larger considering the Cardinal’s monotonously efficient, clock-eating offense.
Stanford added a safety in the game’s final 4 minutes, sacking Leaf for the fifth and final time.
“They started blitzing more guys in the second half,” Knuff said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to pick it up sometimes.
“I’m just as responsible as anybody else. I mean, I gave up a big sack that led to a touchdown. That’s seven points on me right there.”
Senior receiver Chad Carpenter sensed a second-half letdown, especially when the score became 31-17.
“When you get yourself down by 14 points, it’s tough to come back in the Pac-10,” Carpenter said. “I think a lot of guys get down or whatever and, you know, a lot of guys give up.
“I think some of that was evident tonight.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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