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, a strip and perseverance.
First, 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 to put the Buffs on the WSU 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 home happy, led 27-24 with 1:50 left.
Washington State started its final drive at its 10. Four Marshall Lobbestael passes, three of them complete, moved the Cougars out to their 37. Time was 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 him 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 TDs.
“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 (3-1, 1-0) had secured the program’s 500th victory.
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. “But they just kept fighting, grinding, and it was just great to come out on top the way we did.”
“Honestly, it feels like the best win of my life,” cornerback Daniel Simmons said. “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.”