STANFORD, Calif. – Even Paul Wulff knows he’s starting to sound like, in his words, “a broken record.”
“Every game right now, we’re three, four plays away,” the Washington State University football coach said Saturday, standing outside the visiting locker room following the Cougars’ 38-28 loss to the 12th-ranked Cardinal before an announced crowd of 36,679 at Stanford Stadium.
“We’re that close. It wasn’t long ago it was 20 or 30 plays that were difference-makers in the game.”
But the last four letters of close is what the Cougars have done in 14 consecutive Pac-10 games, including five this season, dropping Wulff’s overall record to 4-29 in two-plus seasons, 1-7 in 2010.
Though this one might have been WSU’s best effort under Wulff, considering the competition – Stanford is 6-1 overall, 3-1 and second in the Pac-10 – and how easy it is to identify those three or four key plays.
The first came on the Cougars’ opening drive.
On the game’s third play quarterback Jeff Tuel’s arm was hit trying to throw and the ball fluttered right to linebacker-fullback Owen Marecic at the WSU 26.
“When your arm gets hit, you don’t know where the ball is going to go,” Tuel said “Luck of the draw, right at the linebacker.”
Marecic returned the pick to the 7 and, though the Cougar defense didn’t break, Stanford went up 3-0 on a Nate Whitaker 21-yard field goal.
The next key play was more subtle, coming on a third-and-10 on the Cardinal’s second possession.
Quarterback Andrew Luck, whose ability to run was a worry for the Cougars, decided to scramble when his receivers were covered. But middle linebacker C.J. Mizell was waiting for him, and took off to run Luck down.
But the sophomore, who finished with just 11 yards rushing after coming in with 242, outran Mizell to the right, stepped out of his shoestring tackle and picked up the first down. Ten plays later Stanford led 10-0 on the first of three Luck touchdown passes, this one to Ryan Whalen.
WSU cut the lead to three after senior defensive end Kevin Kooyman came up with his first career interception and Tuel turned that into seven points by hitting Jared Karstetter from 12 yards out.
But Stanford answered with a nine-play, 73-yard drive and Stepfan Taylor, who had 142 yards rushing – his fourth consecutive 100-yard game – scored from 6 yards.
Trailing 17-7, the third key – and probably the most crucial – play occurred. Facing a third-and-11 from their 26, with about 3 minutes before half, Tuel hit Karstetter in front of the Cougar bench, right at the first-down marker. The junior tried to get more, but was driven back by cornerback Johnson Bademosi.
The ball was spotted just short, and Wulff had a decision to make.
“I almost had a heart attack on that one,” he said. “My chest was beating hard.”
Wulff called time, hoped for a replay, didn’t get it, decided not to challenge the mark and punted. Reid Forrest kicked the ball 64 yards – into the end zone – and the Cardinal had 80 yards to go.
They did. In six plays. Taylor scored and it was 24-7 at the half.
And that’s what it was when the final key play occurred. The Cougars held Stanford on the first second-half possession and Tuel, who would finish 21 of 28 for 298 yards, drove them to the Stanford 34.
On third-and-12 he went to Karstetter again, but linebacker Shane Skov got a hand on the ball, tipped it into the air and Taylor Skaufel, a senior, came up with his first career interception.
“He made a good play, doing a good job of tipping it and it went right to the safety,” Tuel said of Skov. “Another bounce that went their way. It seems like it’s been going that way the last two weeks.”
The Cardinal bounced down the field in 12 plays, putting the game away on Doug Baldwin’s catch of a perfectly thrown Luck 17-yard touchdown pass for a 31-7 lead.
Those four plays made moot any WSU comeback. And the Cougars made one with three fourth-quarter scores.
Senior Marcus Richmond scored for the first time in his career on an 18-yard pass from Tuel, Karstetter caught his sixth of the season on a 4-yard out and Marquess Wilson, having the best freshman season for a WSU receiver, capped the scoring by getting behind the Cardinal secondary and gathering in Tuel’s 74-yard bomb in the final minute.