ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With just more than 2 minutes left in the New Mexico Bowl, Washington State held an eight-point lead against an opponent which had been outmanned and outclassed throughout the game and had no timeouts left.
Fans eyed the exits, reporters across the social media landscape wrote the game off as over and just about everyone in the stadium were certain that WSU had already won.
Everyone, including the Cougars.
“We got too complacent, kind of thought we won the game early,” senior Justin Sagote said after the Cougars’ 48-45 loss to Colorado State.
CSU linebacker Shaquil Barrett forced a fumble, recovered it himself, and the Rams promptly scored, tying the game on the two-point conversion by running a delayed handoff to Donnell Alexander known as the Statue of Liberty play.
“They had a lot of reasons to quit in this game,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “They could have quit at any point because they spent most of the game about 10 points, two touchdowns behind. They never did quit.”
Quarterback Connor Halliday had fumbled on a quarterback keeper the previous play, but officials ruled that his knee touched the ground before the ball was loose after a lengthy review.
WSU’s Teondray Caldwell fumbled the ensuing kickoff at the Cougars’ 24-yard line and Jared Roberts’ field goal sailed through the uprights with no time left on the clock, giving CSU its first lead, and the victory.
“We were thinking the whole time they’ve just got to run the ball a few times, kneel it,” Sagote said. “Then there are two turnovers in 10 seconds that changed the whole game.”
Prior to Halliday’s run, the Cougars passed the ball on three consecutive plays, electing not to keep the ball on the ground in case of stopping the clock with an incomplete pass. On their previous drive, up 45-30 with about 6 minutes left, the Cougars passed three times and ran three times.
“We throw the ball, that’s what we do,” receiver River Cracraft said. “We trust ourselves.”
Halliday’s passing had carried the Cougars offense throughout the first half. WSU (6-7) led 35-23 at halftime, following another Roberts field goal to end the half, because Halliday threw five touchdown passes to five receivers.
He finished the day with 410 passing yards and six scores through the air, tying Jason Gesser for the school’s single-game record.
“I thought he did a good job throwing the ball the first half, and then he did so as well the second half,” Leach said. “We were just inconsistent. We had several drops, we stopped ourselves, some cases they were penalties, some cases they were dropped balls. I didn’t think we caught the ball well the second half and we just needed to finish drives.”
That alone was almost enough for the win. But every time WSU’s playmakers pushed the lead to blowout territory, CSU’s stars would respond with a big play of their own. CSU (8-6) finished the day with 595 yards of offense.
Kapri Bibbs rushed for 169 yards and three touchdowns for the Rams, giving him 31 on the season. He joins Barry Sanders and Montee Ball as the only members of the exclusive 30-touchdown club. When WSU scored two straight touchdowns to open the second half and take a 35-13 lead, it was Bibbs who put CSU back in the end zone.
Later, when Andrew Furney’s 33-yard field goal put WSU up by 15 points, Bibbs responded with a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the ensuing drive.
With the loss, the Cougars finish with a .500 or lower record for the 10th consecutive season. Still, the team ended a bowl-drought that dates back to the 2003 season.
After the game, senior safety Deone Bucannon was optimistic that Saturday’s loss wouldn’t put a damper on the team’s improvement.
“I don’t think this is diminishing to the team at all,” said Bucannon, who had an interception in the game. “I honestly think the way that I know our team is, we’re going to bounce back, come back harder. We’re going to have a great offseason
The game didn’t begin like a shootout in which the teams would combine to score 31 points in the first quarter. Halliday’s second pass of the game was intercepted by Max Morgan. The Rams maintained possession for all of one play, giving it back to the Cougars when cornerback Nolan Washington ripped the ball away from receiver Rashar Higgins and sprinted 29 yards and into CSU territory.
“Well, I know (bowl sponsor) Gildan is probably mad at me because everyone turned to other games,” joked CSU coach Jim McElwain.
Halliday quickly found Cracraft in the end zone for a 25-yard score and shortly thereafter threw a 1-yard touchdown strike to Gabe Marks to put WSU up 14-0.
The Rams never took the lead until the game’s final second ticked off the clock.