STANFORD, Calif. – Postgame interviews here, for the visiting team, are conducted inside a cramped tent outside of an archaic locker room.
So maybe it was fitting that even as Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel sat behind a table and answered questions from reporters, his left knee wrapped heavily, he still had about a half-dozen people right in his face.
That was the view Tuel had for too much of Saturday’s closer-than-expected 24-17 loss to Stanford, the senior battling through 10 Stanford sacks – the last of which ended the game – as he led WSU as close as 9 yards from tying this one in the final seconds.
If not for that constant pressure, the Cougars might have shocked the No. 19 Cardinal. As it was, WSU managed to outgain Stanford 385-256, holding star running back Stepfan Taylor to just 58 yards on 21 carries.
“We can play with anybody if we play that kind of ball,” Tuel said.
It was a kind of ball not seen from this team in the Mike Leach era. The sacks – five of them in the first quarter – killed a couple of drives in the first half. But that didn’t prevent Tuel from posting the best stat line for a WSU quarterback this season. He completed a school-record 43 of 60 passes for a career-high 401 yards and two touchdowns.
Included among those scores was a 10-yard fade pass to Kristoff Williams that cut the Cardinal’s lead to 24-17 with 4:14 remaining, one possession after Tuel had an interception returned 25 yards for a touchdown by Stanford safety Ed Reynolds to give the home team a two-score lead.
“I thought he played tough,” Leach said of Tuel, who watched as Connor Halliday started the last five games. “I thought he kept drives going. I thought he did a good job overcoming adversity.”
Still, the Cougars (2-6, 0-5 Pac-12) leave another stadium wondering “What if?”
What if Tuel got rid of the ball on either of the final two plays of the game – one of them from Stanford’s 9-yard line after a miraculous fourth-and-21 conversion from Tuel to Bobby Ratliff – instead of taking an intentional grounding penalty and a sack?
Instead, the Cougars went backward as the final 25 seconds ticked off the clock.
“The bottom line is, I can’t take a sack in that situation,” Tuel said. “There’s no excuse for it.”
What if safety Tyree Toomer hadn’t missed a defensive call in the first half, and helped over the top instead of allowing Stanford receiver Jamal Rashad-Patterson to run right by him?
Instead, Patterson was are-you-kidding-me open, and hauled in a laughably easy 70-yard touchdown pass from Josh Nunes.
“He thought it was a different call,” WSU cornerback Anthony Carpenter said, “and he was in the wrong spot.”
“Totally,” Leach said. “They could have punted that ball to that kid.”
For once, though, a WSU loss feels more encouraging than not. The term “moral victory” is like a swear word around here, yet the Cougars know they’re getting closer. Especially on defense, because WSU held Stanford to a season-low 136 passing yards.
“If we just took away the run game, because (Taylor) is a good back, they would have to go to the passing game quite a bit,” WSU linebacker Justin Sagote said. “And we know he has trouble getting to the outside receivers.”
And so it was that WSU had the ball, 3:37 remaining, down seven points at its 20-yard line after forcing Stanford to punt. A 42-yard pass to Marquess Wilson got the Cougars close. A fourth-and-21 prayer from Tuel to Ratliff got them to Stanford’s 9.
There are only what-ifs after that. WSU must win out now to erase them, needing four consecutive wins to obtain that ever-coveted bowl berth.
“Stanford played more mature than we did,” Leach said. “Their maturity was ahead of us and they won the game. We outplayed them in the most important aspects of the game but they had that sense – they’d go for the kill – that expectation that we as a team need to get. We need to keep growing up. But I thought we improved.”