PULLMAN – As can happen all too often in football, the most electrifying moment Saturday at Martin Stadium in an instant turned into the most potentially tragic.
Oregon’s Kenjon Barner was headed upfield on a first-quarter kickoff return when he was hammered by Washington State defensive back Anthony Carpenter. The homecoming crowd of 24,768 summoned a deafening roar – Halston Higgins scooped up Barner’s fumble before stumbling down at the Oregon 6-yard line – but it was quickly hushed when Barner remained motionless on the turf.
Trainers sprinted to Barner’s side. Family members quickly descended from the stands to check on him, and were consoled by emotional teammates. Players from both teams kneeled. The ambulance was steered out of the tunnel and parked nearby.
But after 10 minutes, Barner was able to sit up and then stand on his own, to a relieved and respectful ovation. As a precaution, he was put on a stretcher and taken to Pullman Regional Hospital and was later pronounced stable. Just before game’s end, Barner’s father, Gary, returned to the Oregon sideline and reported, “He’s all right. He’s up and walking.”
And no one was more relieved than Carpenter.
“I just saw an opening, ran full speed and collided with him,” the freshman recalled. “I was aiming at his lead blocker (Josh Huff), and he moved out of the way.
“First, the excitement of me actually hitting him pretty hard took over. Once I saw he was down and actually really hurt, it kind of set in. My intention is not to hurt a person.”
Washington State scored to take a 14-8 lead, but it was short-lived – the Ducks’ Darron Thomas and LaMichael James hooking up on an 84-yard touchdown pass three plays later. But the emotional impact lingered for some.
“It really affected me,” said James. “Me and Kenjon are best friends. I don’t think I (moved past it). I was thinking about him every play.”
Later, the Ducks had to deal with the loss of Thomas, as well, when he banged up his right shoulder on a second-quarter running play. But backup Nate Costa lessened any impact there – coming on to complete 13 of 15 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown, and rushing for 84 yards and another score.
Freshmen get chance
After two games in which Washington State’s defense had been gashed for 722 yards on the ground, the Cougars made some moves.
C.J. Mizell made his first start at middle linebacker, replacing Mike Ledgerwood, who didn’t suit up due to a neck stinger. Former defensive end Sekope Kaufusi moved to linebacker. And Carpenter moved to safety, filling a hole created by Chima Nwachukwu’s hamstring injury.
All are freshman and all played a role in a defense, though still porous, that held third-ranked Oregon 13 yards under its total offense average.
Carpenter’s biggest play was on the special teams, but Mizell and Kaufusi had an impact on defense.
Mizell, from Talahassee, Fla., led WSU with 12 tackles, nearly doubling his season total.
Kaufusi, from Palo Alto, Calif., added four more. And the two combined to force one of LaMichael James’ two fumbles, with Mizell getting a hand in and Kaufusi recovering it.
“Before we went out, our coach was telling us about his ball security and to get our hand up in there,” Mizell said. “So when I went for the tuck I just threw my arms through and the ball just popped out, just like Coach said it would.”
And they also brought some energy to a defense that needed it.
“They’re excited,” said linebackers coach Travis Niekamp. “Sometimes when you’re a young guy that gets a chance to play, that’s a big deal for them, compared to a guy who’s started 40 games, they’re kind of used to it. These guys, every week’s new to them, every experience is new.”
Which also led to some angst.
“I had my fingers crossed and was sweating bullets going into it,” Niekamp said of the two reading the Oregon option attack, “but they handled it pretty well.”
Mizell admitted he made two major mistakes, picking up a personal foul near the goal line and the other when he went the wrong way as quarterback Nate Costa kept the ball and scampered 43 yards.
But overall, Niekamp felt they played well.
“To a large degree they’re faster,” Niekamp said. “Sometimes they’re going faster in the wrong direction, which will get fixed, but they are faster.”
Replay hasn’t been kind to the Cougars lately.
On the fifth play of the game, Chip Kelly decided to go for a fourth-and-3 from Oregon’s 43. James took Thomas’ handoff and headed around the left end. Cornerback Daniel Simmons cut him off, forcing James out-of-bounds at about the 45.
The WSU defense and sideline erupted. Co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball took off running down the sideline pumping his fist.
“I thought we had stopped them,” he said.
But James had been able to hold the ball ahead and head linesman Cleo Robinson marked it at the 46.
The chains came out. It was a first down by an inch.
Paul Wulff challenged.
“Just thought his foot might have been out-of-bounds, so just depending on where his foot was, the ball location at the time, thought we had a better opportunity,” Wulff said. “It was like an inch off. So we thought we might get an inch or two on a re-spot.”
He didn’t. Referee Jack Wood announced the play stood, WSU had lost a time out and the ability to challenge. Oregon went on to finish off an 80-yard, 13-play drive and take an 8-0 lead.
Cougs temper James
James came into the game averaging 178 yards a game, best in the nation. He finished with 136 yards on 25 carries, but 55 of them came on the third-quarter run that ended in a fumble. He also had a fourth-quarter fumble.
“I don’t know how many short runs he had, but he probably had more short runs than he’s had in a long time,” Wulff said. “But he did spurt out of there a few times, which does not surprise me.”
Though the Cougars made changes at linebacker and in the secondary, it was the play of the defensive line that caught Wulff’s eye.
“What showed up to me today more than anything was our D-line made more plays than they’ve made,” he said. “They got off blocks and made more plays at the line of scrimmage than we have all year.”
Defensive end Kevin Kooyman agreed, saying it was the group’s best effort.
“We controlled the line of scrimmage, and that was the biggest thing coming in,” he said. “Everyone was counting on us to keep them from getting to the second level. And we wanted to get into the backfield.”
And it was all about stopping the 5-foot-9, 195-pound James.
“Once he gets the edge, he’s gone,” Kooyman said. “That was the big thing for us, making him stop his feet.”
The Cougars string of games without injuries ended, with right tackle Micah Hannam, who made his 43rd consecutive start and passed Mike Utley for most for a WSU offensive lineman since the Pac-10 was formed, suffering a concussion and missing the second half.
Defensive ends Casey Hamlett (head and gut), who was injured during Cliff Harris’ 67-yard punt return, and Adam Coerper (concussion), also failed to finish.