PULLMAN – Talk about undermanned.
The Washington State University Cougars went into Saturday’s Pac-10 Conference game against 20th-ranked Oregon State with 13 scholarship players on defense in uniform.
That’s on a defense that entered the game last in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense, one spot above where the offense sits.
Predictably, the Beavers (8-3, 5-3 Pac-10) had their way, especially in the second half, leaving Martin Stadium on a cool, breezy Saturday with a 42-10 victory and keeping their Rose Bowl hopes alive.
But the announced crowd of 16,167 – WSU’s least-attended game since a hastily scheduled Montana State makeup contest in 2001, following the terrorist attacks – on Senior Day saw WSU keep it close for a half, something that hasn’t happened often in this 1-10 season.
“I thought they played better today than they’ve played,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. “I think they should be proud of their team for how they played, and I’m proud of ours for winning the game.”
That probably wasn’t in doubt. It’s just how OSU got there that was somewhat surprising.
With the makeshift group playing a makeshift defense – WSU usually plays a 4-3 most downs but went with a 3-4 for all 76 plays – the Cougars (0-8 Pac-10) gave up three early OSU scoring drives and trailed 21-3 with 9 minutes, 26 seconds left in the first half.
The Beavers were poised to score again 3 minutes later.
But safety Xavier Hicks, one of 14 WSU seniors honored before the game, picked off one of Sean Canfield’s few errant passes – Canfield finished 22 of 29 for 231 yards and two touchdowns – at the WSU 10, giving the Cougars’ defense a boost.
“It really hyped up the defense,” said Easton Johnson, who up until Thursday was a receiver but played all but 10 plays at safety. “We need to make big plays to motivate us just to keep going, to make ourselves better.”
Johnson epitomized WSU’s struggles – he switched sides after backup cornerback Anthony Houston tore up his knee Wednesday – and its resolve. The junior walk-on, who was backup safety last season, was credited with 10 tackles.
“Easton Johnson, that was tremendous job, coming over last minute and really stepping up,” said linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis, who led WSU with a career-high 15 tackles.
Hicks’ interception, and an ensuing three-and-out, the only one of the game for the WSU defense, gave the offense some much-needed breathing room.
“We got it going, and it’s too bad Sean threw that interception,” Riley said of his offense. “(Hicks) surprised him in the coverage. Up to that point (our offense) was spectacular.”
Not so the Cougars. After an 11-play, 49-yard, field-goal producing march to open the game the offense had gained 21 yards. With freshman Jeff Tuel (knee) still sidelined, senior Kevin Lopina made the start at quarterback, his first since Hawaii in the season’s second week.
With 3 minutes to go before half, a Lopina screen pass to Dwight Tardy broke for 27 yards down the right sideline.
Jared Karstetter, who had six catches for 72 yards, then hauled in a 28-yard pass on the same sideline, despite pass interference by OSU’s James Dockery, but the catch was overturned on review, leaving the penalty.
It was the first of four consecutive flags on the Beavers, which resulted in a first-and-goal from the 4. Three plays later, they faced a fourth down from the 1.
Being it was Senior Day, Wulff called on Tardy, who wormed his way into the end zone over right tackle, cutting OSU’s halftime lead to 21-10. In his last Martin Stadium appearance, Tardy finished with 37 yards rushing and another 27 receiving.
“I didn’t get upset, because I didn’t think it would do any good,” Riley said of his halftime speech. “I thought they made some plays and we made some poor choices.”
Both seemed to almost disappear in the second half.
Oregon State’s defense yielded just 87 yards in the final 30 minutes. More than half came on back-to-back Lopina passes to Karstetter – one for 21 yards, the other for 27 – on a 61-yard, fourth-quarter drive that ended in WSU’s only turnover, a Lopina fumble at the OSU 14.
That drive came after Jacquizz Rodgers, last year’s Pac-10 offensive player of the year, had finally broken down the tiring WSU defense. The 5-foot-7, 191-pound Rodgers broke up the middle, bounced off Myron Beck and Johnson, and rumbled 39 yards for a score that made it 35-10.
Rodgers finished with 165 yards on 24 carries, and added five catches for 39 yards. Older brother James was the only Beaver with more receptions, with six, but Damola Adeniji was the game’s reception yardage leader with 89.