SALT LAKE CITY – The hole the Cougars found themselves in with less than a quarter gone in their game at Utah was too deep to even see out of, much less climb out with a big play or emphatic drive.
Washington State gave up a score on offense, defense and special teams before sniffing the scoreboard and Utah’s points were pouring as fast and as hard as the torrential Salt Lake City rains.
The fact that Washington State won the game 28-27 does little to reflect just how dominant the Cougars were for almost an entire game on the road.
Nothing was going Washington State’s way in any facet of the game and to even make the contest competitive would be a long process and the Cougars needed to outplay their foe for more than 54 minutes after being outclassed for the first six.
“We had to overcome adversity and outlast it,” coach Mike Leach said. “It took nearly the whole game to outlast it and it wasn’t going to happen if we kept letting them reel plays off and if we were going to continue to suffer self-inflicted wounds.”
The decisive play, it turned out, was a timeout, called by Mike Leach to settle his players.
After Devontae Booker’s 78-yard touchdown put WSU in a 21-0 deficit with 5:52 remaining in the first half, Leach called timeout and had the entire team gather around him on the sideline.
It was a not a fire-breathing butt-kicking, although as left tackle Joe Dahl later admitted “He’s known for those from time to time.”
Instead Leach merely reminded his players to stay focused, to use the timeout as a chance to reset and not to get disjointed.
“Because sometimes a team will unravel and there will be a series of overreactions and we wanted to avoid that,” he explained.
From that point on they would outplay the Utes on offense and defense and in so doing pull off the largest WSU comeback since the Cougars beat UCLA in 1988 after trailing 27-6.
The other first-quarter scores came when WSU quarterback Connor Halliday threw an interception from the Cougars’ own five-yard line that was returned 11 yards for a score, and a 58-yard punt return by Kaelin Clay.
The Cougars trailed 24-7 at halftime but pulled within 10 midway through the third quarter on Connor Halliday’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Vince Mayle following a drive that saw Halliday complete all five of his passes and the Cougars pick up 18 yards on two rushes.
“Unfortunately that was the circumstances and we had an opportunity to bounce back from a huge deficit,” Dahl said. “The whole time I’ve been playing we haven’t been able to do that but it was a great feeling tonight.”
Utah managed only a field goal in the second half and the Cougars pulled within six on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Halliday to Dom Williams that came on fourth-and-14. It was the second time during the comeback that Halliday and Williams had hooked up for a score on fourth down.
The defense forced a three-and-out and WSU took over with just over six minutes left in the game and 92 yards from taking its first lead. They covered those yards in a hurry with Halliday finding a streaking Vince Mayle over the middle. Mayle zoomed 81 yards, with help from a huge block delivered by Robert Lewis, to the end zone.
“It was a great block,” Mayle said afterwards. “I’ve thanked him like six times already.”
Halliday tried to explain the catharsis, relief and jubilation of a last-second comeback.
“Crazy, fun,” he said. “This is why you play football, you know what I mean? Wins like this.”
It’s the type of win that emphatically proves the program is improving, if not necessarily linearly. Losses to Rutgers and Nevada and even the first quarter on Saturday show that the team still struggles to play to its potential in every game and translate its successes from one game to the next.
But for the defense to clamp down and give up just one opposing touchdown despite being placed in an almost untenable situation through little fault of its own, for Halliday to respond to tough weather and early mistakes with a series of big, back-breaking completions, well that’s new.
“It’s a different feel,” said linebacker Kache Palacio, who forced and recovered a fumble late in the game at the end of a big play that threatened to help extend Utah’s lead.
“In the past a lot of people would have had their head down when it was 21-0 but now we know we’re a complete team, a better team. We just stayed focused and played the game.”
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