PULLMAN – It was a game in which Washington State University came so close in just about everything aspect of the game. Except winning.
That goal slipped from their grasp for the fifth consecutive time this season – and for the 13th straight Pac-10 game – as the 17th-ranked Arizona Wildcats overcame the loss of starting quarterback Nick Foles and the Cougars, 24-7, before 23,955 on Dad’s Weekend in Pullman.
“We just didn’t convert when we had to make some plays, big plays, against a good defense,” said WSU coach Paul Wulff.
Though the defense turned its best game, statistically, of the season, it missed opportunities as well, failing to get the Wildcats (5-1 overall, 2-1 in Pac-10 play) off the field early on, when UA built a 14-0 lead.
And the offense, nearly nonexistent in the first half, shot itself in the hands a few times in the second when the game was still there to be grasped.
“It seems to be the reoccurring theme every week, missed opportunities,” said guard B.J. Guerra, “plays left out on the field.”
After forcing Arizona to punt on its first possession – a first for WSU against a FBS school this season, but one the offense couldn’t take advantage of, going three-and-out – the defense bent and broke on the next two.
First it gave up a Keola Antolin 9-yard touchdown run to cap a 44-yard drive, then it allowed the Wildcats to go 95 yards on 15 plays, with Antolin scoring again, this time from a yard out.
The second drive not only spanned the first-quarter break, it also spanned the Foles’ injury.
The 6-foot-5 junior quarterback, leading the Pac-10 in passing coming in, went down with a sprained right knee when defensive end Travis Long rolled into him as Foles completed a 18-yard pass to Travis Cobb, his sixth completion in seven attempts.
“I was spinning and I got tripped up and rolled into him,” Long said of the play. “It’s just too bad I ran into his knee.”
Both scoring plays came on third down, as UA converted 7 of 10 in the opening half. But under backup quarterback Matt Scott, who came in having thrown 170 passes less than Foles, the Arizona offense – averaging 445 yards a game – sputtered. The Wildcats had just 101 of their 352 yards of total offense after halftime and converted just one of six times on third down.
But all they needed was 7 second-half yards to ice the game, and that came courtesy of Nic Grigsby a little more than a minute into the third quarter. And they came after Reid Forrest dropped a punt snap, then injured his shoulder trying to get the ball back. Khyri Knowles recovered it. Nine seconds later UA led 21-0.
Despite the second-half defensive upgrade, WSU failed to force turnovers, something Long decried.
“We had some opportunities, they were getting loose with the ball,” he said. “A couple more turnovers would have helped.”
Because the offense was moving the ball, piling up all but 56 of its 297 yards of total offense after halftime.
Yardage, yes, but big plays, no.
It started on the possession after intermission, when quarterback Jeff Tuel missed an open Daniel Blackledge deep down the right side on a second-and-4 play. Two snaps later Forrest fumbled and WSU was down three scores.
“That was a big turn of events right there,” Wulff said.
The close calls continued from right there as well:
Tuel, who finished 18 of 32 for 257 yards despite being sacked seven times, connects with Marquess Wilson for 41 yards, only to have holding call nullify the play. Daniel Blackledge has a sure touchdown go right through his hands at the Arizona 2-yard line. Nico Grasu misses a 41-yard field goal just right. Tuel overshoots Wilson as his deep pass floats just out of the freshman’s reach. Adam Hall is able to jar loose another long pass to Wilson.
Even after Wilson and Tuel finally teamed up for a big play, an 83-yard pass-and-run from WSU’s 5 that put the ball on the Arizona 12, the Cougars were stymied.
UA freshman Shaquille Richardson did it, coming up with his second interception, this one in the end zone, two plays after getting beat by Wilson.
Even when the Cougars (1-6, 0-4) had momentum, as they did after Tuel and Wilson teamed up for the lone score, burning Richardson on a 23-yard deep post late in the third quarter, they gave it back.
The defense followed up the score with an inspired fourth-down stop – freshman linebacker Sekope Kaufusi stuffed Antolin in the hole – to open the final quarter, giving the offense the ball on the WSU 41.
But James Montgomery, trying to toss the ball back to Tuel on a double-pass, instead hit defensive end Brooks Reed, who batted the ball down where D’Aundre Reed fell on it. Originally ruled incomplete, after a replay review, officials changed it to a lateral and Arizona’s ball. Five plays later Alex Zendejas’ 40-yard field goal made it 24-7.
“We thought we had the momentum,” Wulff said. “We had just scored and we thought we had that play. … James turned around blindly, didn’t see the defensive end upfield, and it didn’t work.
“Sometimes those work, sometimes they don’t.”
And sometimes they just come close.