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 the 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 Cougars’ defense gave up 504 yards in total offense to the Conference USA’s Mustangs, and quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell passed for 424 yards and two touchdowns.
But the bottom line at Martin Stadium was the final score. 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 against SMU, returned two of those for touchdowns and 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,” middle linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis said. “I cheated over. … 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 Cougars’ offense, which totaled 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 flushed Mitchell. Under duress, Mitchell threw a bullet – right to Beck.
“At halftime we talked about getting a score on defense, to kind of get the offense’s motor running,” Beck said.
Beck raced 67 yards to the end zone, giving WSU two scoring interception returns in one game for the first time since 1987, when it 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 finished 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 offense finally clicked. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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