PULLMAN – There is almost no way Washington State could have come closer to a game-winning touchdown with less than 20 seconds remaining at a snow-covered Martin Stadium on Saturday.
But an inch or a foot or a yard makes no difference when the clock is winding down, so the Cougars settled for a game-tying field goal and eventually fell, 30-27, in overtime to Utah before a thoroughly entertained – and drenched – crowd of 16,419.
It was Coleman Petersen’s 38-yard field goal that made it official, but WSU’s slim bowl hopes died in the waning seconds of regulation and its only overtime possession.
Trailing 27-24 with no time outs and 23 seconds on the clock, Connor Halliday completed his 21st pass, this one to Marquess Wilson, who, at one point, was past the snow-obscured goal line.
However, as Wilson came to meet the ball, his momentum – and Mo Lee’s tackle – carried back to the 2. The officials raced in and marked the ball inside the 1 as the clock ticked. WSU had no choice to spike the ball, which Halliday did with 3 seconds remaining.
The play seemed iffy enough to warrant a replay, which had already occurred a handful of times.
“If they had called it a touchdown on the field, they would have reviewed it,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said.
Instead, though Wulff said he contemplated going for the game-winner, Andrew Furney knocked through a 17-yard field goal for overtime.
“(I) just thought we needed to go do the right thing and kick it at that point,” Wulff said.
The way the Cougars (4-7 overall, 2-6 in Pac-12 play) handled overtime, he probably wishes he had made the other call.
“From the situation we were in, to get it into overtime was great, but we were all disappointed because we had a shot to win it right at the end there,” said Jared Karstetter, whose 44-yard reception behind Lee had put the ball out of bounds at the 6, part of a six-catch, 111-yard day for the senior. “Me and Marquess both could have scored.”
Utah won the overtime toss and gave the Cougars the ball. Under pressure, Halliday missed an open Rickey Galvin on a wheel route.
On second down, offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy called a screen, but Wulff said a player went the wrong way. With no one to throw to, Halliday retreated and, under pressure again, tried to throw the ball away. It didn’t make the line of scrimmage, he was called for grounding and WSU faced a third-and-25 at the 40.
Halliday’s 48th pass of the day – a prayer, really – was aimed at Karstetter. It came up short, and Lee picked it off. It was the fourth interception for the Utah defense against the freshman who lit up Arizona State for 494 yards a week earlier.
“He made some mistakes,” Sturdy said of Halliday. “He had a chance to throw one away, didn’t, tried to make something happen and, typically, you have to have that happen to you a time or two before you learn.”
Halliday was taught a few lessons in the first half by a Utah defense that is in the Pac-12’s top four in all the major statistics. He tossed back-to-back interceptions in the first quarter and threw another one early in the second.
But the mistakes didn’t show on the scoreboard, because the Cougar defense was nearly impenetrable.
“We were dominating the line of scrimmage,” said defensive end Adam Coerper, who had seven tackles and a fumble recovery before being forced off just before half with a knee strain.
With less than 2 minutes left in that half and no score, the Utes (7-4, 4-4) had 58 yards of total offense, and faced their seventh fourth down, this one from the WSU 49.
The Cougars practiced against fake punts all week but when Sean Sellwood took the snap and looked up, Luke Matthews was running free. Sellwood connected, Matthews had little trouble avoiding Leon Brooks, and Utah led 7-0.
“We had a blown assignment,” Wulff said. “A player didn’t stay with his man on that play.”
A little over a minute later it was 7-7, as Halliday shook off the picks and connected on four consecutive passes, the last a 6-yarder to Wilson for the score. Wilson, who didn’t practice most of the week with a hip problem, had eight catches for 83 yards.
The snow, only flurries at first, came down heavily at halftime, and the second half was played with the yard markers and sidelines obscured despite the best efforts of the field crew.
But it didn’t seem to bother the offenses, most notably John White, who had 137 of his 186 rushing yards in the second half.
The biggest 56 of those came with 6:38 left when he busted out of Chester Su’a tackle – the freshman led WSU with 11 playing in place of a sore-shouldered Sekope Kaufusi – and tiptoed down the left sideline to put Utah up 27-17.
But Halliday wasn’t done. He drove the Cougars to a touchdown in nine plays, covering all but seven of the 74 yards with his right arm. The final 9 came on a bullet to Karstetter in the back of the end zone, the 18th touchdown of the receiver’s career, third on WSU’s all-time list.
The defense, which in the second half had yielded two field goals and two touchdowns – one following a muffed punt by Brooks at the WSU 37 – gave up a first down, but held White short of another, forcing Sellwood’s eighth punt.
Facing 75 yards of snow, Halliday fired. His first pass was incomplete, his second, to Karstetter, covered 24 yards but didn’t stop the clock. Halliday scrambled to his right, saw Karstetter had gotten behind Lee, and connected as Karstetter caught the ball and went out of bounds at the 6.