Less than 3 minutes remained in the game and everything was in place for Washington State: the comeback victory, the undefeated season and control of the Rose Bowl race.
And then, in shocking fashion, all of it was gone.
Ryan Leaf was sacked, the football was loose and Arizona State’s Mee Hamilton was sprinting 69 yards for the game-breaking touchdown. Most importantly, ASU was on its way to a 44-31 victory before 73,644 frenzied fans at Sun Devil Stadium.
The 10th-ranked Cougars trailed just 30-25 with 2:55 remaining. They faced fourth-and-3 from ASU’s 23-yard line. Leaf, on his way to a career-high 447-yard passing performance, had completed five passes for 74 yards on the drive.
With one more big play, the Cougars seemed destined to secure the first 8-0 start in school history. But destiny can be a fickle friend.
ASU safety Mitchell Freedman timed his blitz perfectly and was in Leaf’s face before there was time to react. The ball came loose, and Mee picked it up in stride.
Just like that, the Cougars had fallen to 7-1 overall and 5-1 in the Pacific-10 Conference, while the 20th-ranked Sun Devils (6-2, 4-1) had crept back into the Rose Bowl race.
ASU fans stormed the south end zone and eventually ripped down the goalpost. The Cougars were left with an utterly empty feeling - fitting, considering the game’s pivotal play.
WSU, its running game having long since become an afterthought, went with a five-receiver formation that left Leaf alone in the backfield.
The formation, known as “empty,” is always a big-play proposition. This time, ASU made the play.
“It was a bad call on my part and I lost the game in that situation,” WSU coach Mike Price said. “We worked so hard to get back into it, and then the coach blew it. It’s my fault and not the kids’.”
ASU led 24-0 in the second quarter thanks to rookie quarterback Ryan Kealy, who completed 16 of 23 passes for 185 yards and three touchdowns in the half.
But WSU rallied for 25 straight points, taking a 25-24 lead with 13:13 left in the game.
Leaf and receiver Shawn McWashington made many of the big plays during the spurt, including a 66-yard connection on third-and-15. WSU trailed 24-10 at the time, but tailback DeJuan Gilmore made it 24-17 just three plays after McWashington’s catch-and-run.
The WSU defense, which had allowed ASU to convert on six third-down plays in the first half, promptly forced the Sun Devils to go three-and-out.
WSU took over at its own 36, whereupon Leaf went to work: four passes for 60 yards, capped by an 11-yard strike to McWashington that closed the gap to 24-23.
ASU was flagged twice for unsportsmanlike conduct immediately after the touchdown, moving the ball within the 1-yard line on WSU’s conversion try. It was an opportunity the Cougars could not resist, and Leaf sneaked in for the go-ahead two-point conversion.
Cougars 25, Sun Devils 24.
“When they took the lead, I heard the crowd gasp,” ASU coach Bruce Snyder said. “It was a terrific gutcheck against a good team.
“Kealy showed great leadership.”
That, he did. The redshirt freshman completed a 39-yard pass on the ensuing drive. Two plays later, he found Tariq McDonald for a 6-yard score. His two-point conversion pass was intercepted by WSU safety Ray Jackson, so ASU’s lead remained at 30-25.
Mee’s fumble return, followed by another fumble recovery for a touchdown, stretched ASU’s lead to 44-25 with 2:32 remaining. Leaf closed out the scoring with a 3-yard pass to McKenzie with 1:13 left.
“It’s an exciting team they have, but we have a great team, too, and we’ll bounce back,” Leaf said.
Leaf, who had completed just 4 of 14 passes in the first half, rebounded to finish with some Arena League numbers: 24 of 49 for 447 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
It was an amazing performance, considering he suffered a muscle injury in his right forearm less than 24 hours before kickoff. Leaf injured the arm during a Friday night workout that was closed to the media, Price said.
Leaf wore a black neoprene sleeve on his right elbow, and his forearm was taped.
“I tweaked a ligament in my arm,” Leaf said. “The training staff made a ligament out of tape, and taped it on the inside of my arm.”
He also aggravated an old ankle injury during the game, but nothing could keep Leaf from the second-best passing day in school history.
“He’s tough and physical,” Mee said. “He’s very big and hard to bring down. It was hard work.”
The Sun Devils sacked Leaf eight times, a total that would have been much higher had Leaf not broken free from defenders on several occasions.
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