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 of 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 Saturday afternoon.
But that’s when it slipped away.
In the end, Wulff and his players answered 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,” senior defensive end Kevin Kooyman said. “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 than the one that came with less than a minute left in the third quarter.
The Cougars, a 36.5-point underdog, had overcome some big plays by the defending Pac-10 champs – 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 finished 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.”
Backup quarterback Nate Costa took the Ducks (6-0, 3-0 Pac-10) 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.
Costa played in place of injured starter Darron Thomas, who completed 8 of 12 passes for 153 yards in less than one half.
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,” linebacker Myron Beck said. “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 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 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. James, a finalist in the Pac-10 100 meters last spring and a Heisman candidate this fall, did the damage. On a second-and-14 from the Oregon 16, the sophomore gathered in a short Thomas pass at the 28 and sprinted down the right sideline to give the Ducks the lead for good.