PULLMAN – The few yards that separated Erik Powell’s only bad kick from the uprights encompassed so much.
Just a little to the left from a kicker who had already tied the school record for made field goals in a game and the Cougars are bowl eligible.
The angle on Powell’s kick changes by just a degree or two, and Washington State can celebrate a transformative first-half performance by its defense.
Powell’s kick goes through the uprights, and the Cougars control their Rose Bowl destiny.
But Powell’s kick missed. And the Cougars lost 30-28, and the vast gulf between victory and defeat was once again decided by the smallest of measurements.
Washington State came within a couple of inches on a handful of plays that will be debated for years.
WSU (5-3, 3-2 Pac-12) would have sat a game behind Stanford (7-1, 6-0) in the conference standings with a win, because of the Cardinal having played one more game against a Pac-12 opponent. But with a win the teams would have had the same number of losses,
This is, in fact, the same WSU football team that lost to Portland State, at home, in its season opener.
But this band of bullies breathed fire on Saturday.
The Cougars were just inches away from glory throughout the game. An apparent interception by Parker Henry was returned for a touchdown, but the turnover was nullified when officials decided that the football touched the field prior to bouncing off Stanford receiver Michael Rector’s foot.
Ivan McLennan ripped the ball away from Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey late in the third quarter. Officials ruled that McCaffrey’s left foot was out of bounds before he lost possession, but most people with TV sets and instant replay saw differently.
Most but not all. The officials reviewed the call and ruled the evidence inconclusive, saying the call stood. The Cardinal hit a field goal to cut to WSU’s lead to 22-13.
The Cougars take no solace in coming close. Rather, they take anger in it.
“There’s no room to be satisfied with this game,” Mike Leach said. “We have to improve from here and we have to be a better team.”
Gabe Marks began the postgame press conference by asking reporters to not ask about the weather, taking one possible excuse for the missed kick or red zone woes off the table.
When given an opportunity to praise or publicly console Powell, he declined.
“He missed the one at the end,” Marks said. “We lost. I don’t want anyone praising anyone right now. So don’t ask us questions about who’s praising who. We should have won.”
The Cougars took a 12-3 lead in the first half, and extending the margin to 12 early in the second. But all those field goals masked missed red-zone opportunities, and though the defense played well, the conference’s top-ranked team would not be held down forever.
WSU quarterback Luke Falk threw the interception that allowed Stanford to retake the lead with just 1:58 left in the ball game as the Cougars tried to run out the clock on a 28-27 lead. Stanford’s kick did not secure a win, but it provided the critical cushion.
WSU’s final drive took perilously long to get down the field until a 23-yard pass to Dom Williams brought the Cougars to the precipice of field-goal range.
But just as Falk led the Cougars to a tying or winning score in the final moments against Oregon and Rutgers, he again put WSU in a position to win.
This hard-hitting, precision-throwing embodiment of Leach’s aphorisms holds little resemblance in manner or spirit to the feeble group that took the field in what was quite probably the program’s worst loss. That’s why it was nearly able, on Halloween night, to earn one of its greatest victories. The Cougars led until there was a little more than 14 minutes left in the game. Then the defense’s Kryptonite, quarterback runs, reared its head once again. The Cougars much-improved defense has shown it can stop almost everything this year. But fleet-footed throwers have been WSU’s Kryptonite all season. Alex Kuresa. Jeff Lockie. Seth Collins. Jerrard Randall.
When quarterbacks have run the ball against the WSU defense they’ve had success, and it’s made things easier for the rest of their team’s offensive playmakers. Stanford figured that out in the second half.
Hogan carried the ball 40 yards to set up Stanford’s first touchdown and then scored its second from 59 yards away to give the Cardinal their first lead, early in the fourth quarter.
WSU’s defensive players said after the game they did not expect Hogan to be such a rushing threat.
But the Cougars did not lay dormant as its highly regarded foe began to impose its will. Rather, the Cougars countered.
After two incomplete passes on the ensuing drive, Falk threw one 22 yards to Gabe Marks, who bobbled the ball but managed to secure it even as two defenders pulled him to the ground.
Marks extended the drive again with an 8-yard reception on fourth down and the Cougar retook the lead when Falk found River Cracraft for a 1-yard touchdown pass.
v The Cougars have sporadically shown elements of the transformation they say took place in the offseason, but fully manifested in the eighth game of the 2015 season. There were boisterous first quarters by the offense against California, Oregon State and Arizona.
There were key defensive stands to seal the team’s win at Oregon.
But this was Stanford. Stanford, which had won each of its past seven meetings with WSU, usually by crippling margins. Stanford, which boasted the Pac-12’s most disciplined team and its only Heisman Trophy candidate in McCaffrey. Stanford, the team whose discipline and dominance on both the defensive and offensive lines immediately take most foes out of the game.
WSU needed to create extra opportunities and exploit them but managed only the first necessity. Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan fumbled and had a pass intercepted by WSU safety Shalom Luani in his territory in the first quarter.
But the Cougars only came away with three points from those turnovers.
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