PULLMAN – Washington State’s defensive players could feel the end zone against their backs, lined up against Idaho with the Vandals looking at a 1st-and-goal from WSU’s 2-yard line in the final minute of the fourth quarter.
Idaho rushed. It lost a yard. It passed. The ball fell incomplete. Then it tested the middle of the Cougars’ defensive line. Two yards, to the 1. Then again up the middle on fourth down. Nothing, a ferocious goal line stand giving the ball back to WSU and sent the few remaining fans in Martin Stadium into a frenzy.
They yelled. They leapt. They rejoiced. The Cougars won the game 42-0.
That final series felt as meaningful as any for WSU this season, as the Cougars clinched their first shutout since a 25-0 victory over Idaho in a 2003 game at CenturyLink field in Seattle.
They wanted this one badly, and the desire to notch their first shutout in a decade was already burning.
And then …
“You know, what really got us going was coach (Mike) Leach,” said senior safety Deone Bucannon.
Accurate. Leach about lost his mind after a highly questionable roughing-the-passer penalty against linebacker Eric Oertel gave the Vandals a first down at WSU’s 5-yard line. Leach so fervently objected to the call that he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, a call that made the stadium louder and moved Idaho to the 2-yard line.
“He was fired up,” Bucannon said, “and if the coach is fired up, we better be fired up.”
“That was something special,” defensive lineman Xavier Cooper said of the final stop. “That really shows what type of football team we are. When it comes down to the goal-line situations, we really showed up as a defense. That’s our personality. We’re going to come in here and fight for all four quarters.”
Leach had little to say about the penalty – either of them – but was pleased with the result.
“Without commenting on penalties and all, I felt like our guys deserved a shutout, should get it, and so they did,” Leach said. “So that turned out well.”
It would have anyway. WSU moved the ball nearly at will against the Vandals, who have now lost 10 consecutive games and 25 of their last 28. Connor Halliday, WSU’s junior quarterback, struggled on his first few throws, completing just 2 of his first 7 tries.
But he responded well enough, finishing with 31 completions on 43 attempts with 346 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. WSU led 28-0 at halftime. Yawn.
Each of Halliday’s touchdowns came in the first half. First was a 43-yard toss to sophomore Gabe Marks, who cut and sprinted past a couple of defenders midway through the first quarter until he found the end zone.
Idaho’s ineptitude almost cost it a touchdown on WSU’s first play from scrimmage. Nobody lined up against Cougars receiver Isiah Myers, who ran straight up the left sideline by himself. Connor Halliday threw it toward him, but the ball sailed over Myers’ head, a sure touchdown gone for naught.
No matter. There were plenty of other chances for the Cougars, who led 28-0 at the break and cruised to their second easy victory in as many games.
The Vandals’ young secondary looked so lost that at times it seemed Halliday was simply playing catch with his receivers. A 30-yard scoring strike to Dom Williams early in the second quarter was made relatively simple after Idaho cornerback Jayshawn Jordan stopped on the wheel route and watched Williams haul it in at about the 5-yard line, then shake a tackle from the safety and walk across the goal line.
That made it 14-0, and a 20-yard touchdown pass from Halliday to senior Vince Mayle about four minutes later provided the Cougars with enough separation to believe they could roll thereafter. Halliday threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Marks with 24 seconds remaining in the first half to prove that notion true.
WSU held Idaho’s offense to 253 yards, including 79 yards rushing on 49 attempts. And the Vandals’ final possession, the one that lasted 7:49 but resulted in zero points, may wind up WSU’s defining moment
“We feel that we deserved this,” Bucannon said. “We each looked each other in the eye and made a decision. We’re not going to let them into our end zone.”
Not in the final minute, and not in the 59 preceding it.