Washington State made more than just a fashion statement in Saturday’s second annual Builders Square Alamo Bowl.
Along with unveiling flashy new uniform pants that all but defy description, the 24th-ranked Cougars drove 91 yards with the opening kickoff to score the game’s only touchdown and then let the greatest defense in the school’s history make one final, frantic stop in the waning seconds to preserve a 10-3 win over Baylor.
The late drama played out fittingly in front of 44,106 Alamodome fans and a national ESPN television audience.
A veteran Cougars defense - the second stingiest in the country during the regular season - denied its opponent once again by snuffing out a desperate Baylor drive in the final minute.
This time the hero was backup free safety Todd Jensen, who picked off a Jeff Watson pass intended for tight end Bradley Domel in his own end zone. Jensen returned it to the WSU 6-yard line with 30 seconds left.
From there, quarterback Chad Davis, named the game’s most valuable offensive player after throwing for an Alamo Bowl-record 286 yards, simply downed the ball and let the clock run out.
The bowl victory, WSU’s third straight and second in three years, left the Cougars at 8-4. Unranked Baylor, part of an unprecedented five-way tie for the Southwest Conference championship, finished 7-5.
“It was poetic justice there at the end when our defense held,” Cougars coach Mike Price said immediately after the game, as balloons dropped from the ceiling of the Alamodome to kick off an early New Year’s celebration.
“It just had to end this way, a bowl victory for this group of kids.”
The Cougars defenders, to a man, felt the same way.
“That’s the only way to go out,” said senior linebacker and defensive most valuable player Ron Childs, who made eight tackles and deflected a pass.
“It couldn’t have ended any better,” echoed senior defensive tackle Chad Eaton. “We stopped them. That’s what great defenses do.”
“When we had our backs against the wall, we came out punching and got the knockout,” added senior cornerback Torey Hunter, who intercepted one pass and deflected four others. “It was a perfect ending. “
The only real surprise was that Baylor somehow found itself in position to score late in the game after getting almost nothing accomplished on offense in the first 58 minutes.
Until their final drive, which started from the WSU 45 with 3:57 left, the Bears had gained only 119 yards. They gained 33 more on a clutch fourth-down pass from Watson to tailback Kalief Muhammad that kept their final drive alive.
But the final figure of 151 was the second-fewest yards the Cougars allowed all year.
“They’re a very good football team; they have a great defense,” Baylor coach Chuck Reedy said. “They have a bunch of 22- and 23- year-old players. They’re a veteran bunch and they played like it. “
Jensen, a seldom-used, 5-foot-11, 175-pound senior from Salem, Ore., was also one of the heroes in WSU’s 31-28 Copper Bowl win over Utah in 1992.
Jensen was playing instead of four-year starter John Rushing, who was on the sideline with his helmet in his hand. Rushing wasn’t hurt, according to defensive backs coach Craig Bray, who said he had Jensen in the game because he felt he deserved a chance to play.
“He’s good enough to be a starter,” Bray said of Jensen. “I had a hunch he might make a big play for us and I’m sure glad he did.”
Jensen downplayed his interception by saying that all he did was read the eyes of the quarterback.
“I see him looking right there at that guy (Domel),” he explained, “and he was coming clean. He was almost running right to me, so it wasn’t like I had to go far to make the interception.”
“Somebody said we had a man open on the right side, I think,” Reedy said. “But Jeff threw it to the tight end and the defender just made a great play.”
Nearly overshadowed by Jensen’s late pick and the play of WSU’s defense was the performance of Davis, who completed 27 of 35 passes to set Alamo Bowl records in each category.
Davis was remarkably calm in the pocket all night and made excellent decisions. Sophomore wide receiver Chad Carpenter was Davis’ most productive target, hauling in five passes for 91 yards.
The Cougars’ only touchdown came midway through the opening period, when tailback Kevin Hicks scored on a 1-yard run that capped a 91-yard drive.
It was the first time WSU had scored on its first possession all season. And it took a roughing-the-kicker call on Baylor to keep the drive alive after the Bears defense appeared to have stuffed the Cougars deep in their own territory.
The critical penalty gave WSU first down at its 28, and Davis went on to complete five consecutive passes - including a 32-yarder to Albert Kennedy that took the ball to the 1 - to sustain the drive.
Davis, who missed one play late in the third quarter after being speared in the back by Baylor linebacker Phillip Kent, was successful without the benefit of a running game.
The Cougars rushed for only 7 yards and crippled their overall production with 15 penalties that cost them 110 yards.
WSU’s offense didn’t get much going in the first half following its long scoring drive. Davis stayed hot and hit several medium-range passes, but penalties destroyed any threat of continuity. The Cougars needed a 37-yard field goal from Tony Truant with 2 seconds left in the half to sneak their lead to 10-0 at halftime.
WSU was penalized 10 times for 74 yards in the opening 30 minutes and needed a big save from its defense to keep Baylor off the scoreboard.
The Bears, whose only points came on Jarvis VanDyke’s 36-yard field goal in the third period, were handed a splendid scoring opportunity late in the second quarter when punter George Martin, trying to escape the heavy rush of Michael Benjamin, had the ball knocked from his hands.
The Bears’ Kendrick Bell recovered at the WSU 29, but two huge plays by Childs set up a third-down incompletion, and Baylor came away with nothing when Jarvis VanDyke’s 47-yard field-goal try fell short.
It was another penalty that helped put WSU’s defense in such a predicament. Martin had pinned the Bears inside their 20 with a 44-yard punt, but the Cougars were flagged for illegal motion and Baylor forced them to kick again.
Martin’s next punt attempt fell short when Benjamin broke through the middle of WSU’s line and almost picked the ball off Martin’s fingertips as he was attempting to drop it.
Davis finished the half with 18 completions for 183 yards. He completed passes to eight receivers.
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