PULLMAN – Washington State University football coach Paul Wulff trudged into the postgame media interview session, stepped to the microphone and waited.
For once Wulff wasn’t worried the questions would be about another blowout. Or why his team couldn’t stop the run. Or a million other points he’s dealt with the last couple seasons.
No, this time the questions would concern a missed opportunity. A chance for a signature upset of the third-ranked Oregon Ducks, which seemed so near with seconds left in the third quarter.
But that’s when it slipped away.
In the end, Wulff and his players would answer questions about another defeat, their fifth in six games this season, this one 43-23, in front of a homecoming crowd of 24,768 at Martin Stadium.
And, to Wulff and his players, the idea of close isn’t enough.
“We are getting close, but it just gets old hearing that,” said senior defensive end Kevin Kooyman. “We were right there in this game.
“There were just plays out there that needed to be made and we left them on the field.”
None loomed larger Saturday afternoon then the one that came with less than a minute left in the third quarter.
The Cougars, a 36.5-point underdog, had out-hit the defending Pac-10 champs, had overcome some big plays by the Ducks – including a 67-yard punt return and an 84-yard pass – and had moved the ball, if not consistently, at least often enough to trail just 36-23.
Quarterback Jeff Tuel and the offense, coming off an 80-yard touchdown drive, returned to the field following a LaMichael James fumble at the WSU 30.
Mixing a series of power runs with a 35-yard fade to Jared Karstetter, Tuel, who would finish 25 of 40 passing for 245 yards despite Oregon’s intense pressure, guided the Cougars to the Oregon 12-yard line.
“I got a little greedy, a little excited,” Tuel said. “I wanted to get into the end zone. Took a shot I probably shouldn’t have. Should have probably thrown it outside.”
Instead he tried to force the ball into Daniel Blackledge – the recipient of the touchdown pass 4 minutes earlier – at the goal line. Middle linebacker Casey Matthews stepped in, grabbed the ball and brought it out to the 9.
“Hell of a drive,” Wulff said. “We have an opportunity to go down, get this thing 36-30 and turn the ball over down there.”
“That hurt,” Tuel said. “That hurt big-time after that drive to shoot ourselves in the foot like that.”
And it hurt even more when Oregon, behind backup quarterback Nate Costa – playing in place of injured starter Darron Thomas, who played into the second quarter and finished 8-of-12 passing for 153 yards – took the Ducks (6-0, 3-0 in Pac-10 play) 90 yards in 3 minutes, 46 seconds to finish the scoring – a 34-yard screen pass to Jeff Maehl capped it – and the Cougars’ upset hopes.
Washington State (1-5, 0-3) showed from the first Oregon possession its game plan was predicated on whacking the Ducks in the mouth.
Linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis set the tone with a crunching sack of Thomas on the game’s second play.
“We practiced all week getting off blocks, being physical and beating our guy,” said linebacker Myron Beck. “At times we did that. We’re improving.”
But Oregon coach Chip Kelly showed his disdain for the WSU defense on the same possession, going for it twice on fourth down – including one from the WSU 43 that was successful by inches – as the Ducks covered 80 yards in 13 plays, taking an 8-0 lead on LaMichael James’ 1-yard run and a quick-hit two-point conversion.
The Cougars answered 6 minutes later with James Montgomery’s 26-yard sprint – WSU’s longest scoring run since Logwone Mitz’s 57-yarder in the 2008 Apple Cup – and then kicked off.
Kenjon Barner, one of the nation’s best kick returners, took the ball in the end zone and headed up the field. Freshman Anthony Carpenter – one of 15 WSU played – exploded into him at the 11, knocking the ball loose and Barner out.
Hallston Higgins recovered and stumbled to the 6. Barner stayed down for at least 5 minutes, before being taken off by ambulance to Pullman Regional Hospital, where he was walking, though suffering what was termed a probable concussion.
It took two Mitz runs for WSU to score and lead 14-8.
And it only took Oregon three plays to respond. As could be expected, it was James, a finalist in the Pac-10 100 meters last spring and a Heisman candidate this fall, who did the damage. On a second-and-14 from the Oregon 16, the sophomore gathered in a short Thomas pass alone at the 28 and sprinted down the right sideline to give the Ducks the lead for good.
After Cliff Harris’ 67-yard punt return extended the Oregon lead to 22-14, the Cougars pulled with five on Nico Grasu’s 50-yard field goal with 4:44 left before halftime. But Costa broke off a 43-yard run, setting up James’ second score – a 1-yard run – and a 29-17 halftime lead.
“We knew they were going to throw it a little more and (Costa’s running) kind of caught us a little bit off guard,” Wulff said. “We made an adjustment and contained him running the football in the second half.”
The senior, who lost the quarterback battle in camp, had one more run in him, however, an 18-yard dash early in the third that gave the Ducks a 36-17 lead. WSU answered with an 11-play, 80-yard drive kick started by a 19-yard Mitz run, part of his team-high 55 yards on 15 carries.
Tuel’s 11-yard toss to Blackledge, who was upended by John Boyett in the end zone, pulled WSU within 13 and got the crowd going. And, after C.J. Mizell pulled the ball away from James at the end of a 55-yard run – James finished with 136 yards on 25 carries – and Sekope Kaufusi recovered, the Cougars had a chance to get them really excited.
But Matthews intercepted those hopes. And Wulff was explaining the lost opportunity.
“(Oregon) is the measuring stick for us,” he said. “They’re the defending (Pac-10) champions, they’re leading the conference right now. They may be the best team in the country. We went out, fought, played hard, and grew up in some areas.”
One of those areas, Wulff said, is something he’s been trying to grow for a while.
“(We’re) believing we’re playing Pac-10 football,” he said, “and we can now play in the Pac-10 and compete.”