BOULDER, Colo. – Sometimes a dramatic victory grows from the fertilizer of a tough defeat.
Such was seemingly the case for the Washington State Cougars on Saturday.
Just 14 days after wilting down the stretch in a loss to San Diego State, the Cougars rallied from 10 points down in the final 2 minutes, 35 seconds to reap a stunning 31-27 victory in the Colorado Buffaloes’ first Pac-12 game.
All it took was a failure, a guess and a strip. And perseverance.
We’ll start with the failure.
On the game’s first possession, WSU’s Jared Karstetter ran a deep dig – or in – route. Free safety Ray Polk read it perfectly and jumped the pass, coming up with his first career interception, returning the ball 52 yards and putting the Buffs on their 20.
Now jump ahead to the fourth quarter. The Buffaloes, 1-3 coming in but trying to send the Folsom Field crowd of 51,928 happy, lead 27-24 with 1:50 left.
Washington State starts its final drive at its 10. Four Marshall Lobbestael passes, three of them complete, move the Cougars out to their 37. Time is running out.
Lobbestael, playing in place of the injured Jeff Tuel, and offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy had talked on the sideline and reviewed a play Tuel had thrown in a spring scrimmage. It was time to use it.
Marquess Wilson ran a deep route and Bobby Ratliff an out underneath. It looked just like the Karstetter play from the first series.
At least strong safety Anthony Perkins must have thought so.
“First I came off slow just to see how he was playing it,” Wilson said. “After I saw that, I gave a quick burst. He took the in route and I flew up the field.”
Splitting Perkins and freshman cornerback Greg Henderson, Wilson was 3 yards beyond the deepest Buff. Back in the pocket, Lobbestael had pumped fake, reloaded and let go.
“I was looking at and saying, ‘Marshall, don’t overthrow that dang ball,’” WSU coach Paul Wulff said. “I couldn’t tell from my angle, it looked like it he may have put too much on it.”
Lobbestael thought so too.
“I did, right when I threw it,” he said. But he hadn’t. The ball nestled in Wilson’s hands just inside the CU 30, he took off and WSU led for the first time since the first quarter.
It was Wilson’s sixth catch (for 121 yards) and Lobbestael’s 32nd completion (in 49 attempts), good for a career-high 376 yards and three touchdowns.
“To adapt during the game, that’s the sign of a great team to be able to do that,” Lobbestael said of the winning play he had never run in practice. “We drew it up on the sidelines and executed it perfectly.”
But the game wasn’t over. It was one play later.
CU quarterback Tyler Hansen, who threw for 175 yards while connecting on 15 of 23 attempts, found his favorite receiver, Paul Richardson, running across the field in front of WSU’s Damante Horton.
Horton didn’t quit, swiped from behind and forced the ball loose. C.J. Mizell jumped on the ball, the replay confirmed the fumble, and WSU was 1-0 in conference play, 3-1 overall.
And Wulff, who has been listed on just about every hot seat published in America the past 12 months, could bask in the glow.
“To overcome so many things that happened in this game, there were a lot of things that went against us,” Wulff said after WSU’s contingent of fans had showered his team with high-fives outside the locker room. “But they just kept fighting, grinding, and it was just great to come out on top the way we did.”
And that brings us back to the San Diego State defeat. Leading 24-21 headed into the fourth quarter, the Cougars collapsed in a storm of turnovers and mistakes.
In the two weeks since, the mantra around practice has been “finish,” a word yelled just about every 10 minutes by cornerback coach Jody Sears. It seems to have sunk in.
“We kept going down and we kept getting back up and back up,” said freshman defensive end Logan Mayes, who had a sack in his first collegiate action. “Eventually, we knocked them down and they didn’t get back up and we won the ballgame.”
They did, despite a list of mistakes that stretched back to Denver.
The Cougars had 125 yards on 10 penalties, including three personal fouls on CU’s two second-quarter scoring drives that combined to put the Buffs up 10-7.
Just before half, after Andrew Furney’s field goal tied the game at 10, his squib kickoff went right to Evan Harrington, who returned it to near midfield. One completion later Will Oliver ended the half with a 48-yard field goal.
On a third-quarter third-and-3, no one covered CU running back Rodney Stewart in the flat and he took a short throw 34 yards, leading to a touchdown that gave Colorado a 20-10 lead.
Wilson contributed a drop of a sure touchdown pass in the third quarter.
On a second-and-18 with about 10 minutes left, the defense got out of its lanes and Stewart motored for 52 of his 132 rushing yards. His 1-yard run seven plays later put CU ahead 27-17.
But the Cougars persevered.
After the Lobbestael interception, Travis Long broke through and blocked a field-goal attempt. After CU took the 20-10 lead, Lobbestael led WSU on an 80-yard drive, finding Jared Byers for a score following Wilson’s drop. Trailing by 10 with less than 5 minutes left, Lobbestael drove the Cougars 77 yards in seven plays, the final one a 19-yard pass to Isiah Barton. And, with time running down, the defense forced Colorado to punt, giving the offense the ball back and almost 2 minutes to work with.
Six plays later, they had posted a confidence-building win.
“(It) proves we can win on the road and we can come from behind late,” Wulff said. “I think that says a lot about character and perseverance. We showed a little of that today.”
“Honestly, it feels like the best win of my life,” said cornerback Daniel Simmons. “We can only relish it for the next 24 hours, because we have to start getting ready for UCLA, but I’m going to dream about this tonight.”