CORVALLIS – Given the opponent’s previous body of work and with the majority of the country long asleep by halftime, Washington State’s 35-31 win at Oregon State on Saturday night is unlikely to be remembered as one of 2016’s greatest games.
But considering the Cougars managed to make every single mistake they could manage, often in succession, and overcome a three-score deficit on the road, Saturday’s win might be considered the most impressive yet during their five-year evolution from ineptitude to Rose Bowl contention.
WSU was brutalized during the first two quarters of Saturday’s game at Oregon State and trailed 24-6 at halftime. Even after they powered their way to a lead, they gave right back.
But with the clock approaching midnight, WSU (6-2, 5-0 Pac-12) managed to be on the right side of the scoreboard at the end of the game, preserving its six-game winning streak and declaring itself bowl eligible.
“We got more disciplined about doing our jobs, and we them harder,” Mike Leach said after. “I know that’s simple, but that’s what happened.”
A litany of mistakes, many of which will be covered later, spilled over into the second half. WSU failed to pick up a first down in its first three plays. Then, the Cougars tried the fake that has been sitting there all season with wide receiver Kyle Sweet punting the ball, but Sweet was unable to run for the first down.
Then, things turned for the Cougars.
Defensive end Garrett McBroom knocked the Beavers back out of field goal range with a sack on the ensuing possession.
After WSU got the ball back, running back Jamal Morrow snuck behind the OSU defense for a 66-yard touchdown reception that made it a game again.
Then, wide receiver Gabe Marks, who has made a four-year career of highlight reel touchdown catches in the biggest moments of games, had two of his best yet. The first was a 37-yard heave into triple-coverage that brought WSU within one score of the Beavers.
“I don’t know if I was feeling it out there, but I made some plays,” Marks said. “(Falk) threw it up to me, finally, and I figured if I drop this I’ll probably never get thrown to again.”
The second was easier. Marks blew past the OSU cornerback and Falk sent a leading pass 28 yards to the end zone. When Marks came down with it the Cougars had the lead and Marks had sole possession of WSU’s all-time receiving touchdown record at 33.
During the third quarter, WSU outscored OSU 22-0. Falk completed 10-of-11 passes in the quarter for 200 yards and three scores.
It was WSU’s first comeback of more than 10 points in the second half since the win at Utah in 2014.
In the first half, OSU had outgained the Cougars 394 yards to 188, and the three-score lead only somewhat reflected the degree to which the Beavers outplayed their favored opponent.
The first quarter could not have gone worse for the Cougars, except that it could have gone much, much worse. WSU was lucky to escape trailing only 14-0. To only be down two scores, the Cougars needed OSU to miss a 45-yard field goal attempt, allow Luke Falk to wriggle out of a possible safety, and drop at least two interceptions, one of which likely would have been returned for a touchdown.
Mike Leach called timeout after another long run by Ryan Nall, who scored the game’s first touchdown on an 89-yard wind sprint up the gut. The game’s second score came when Marcus McMaryion found Nall in the flat on the next possession. Nall reeled in the quick pass and ran 19-yards untouched for the score.
McMaryion entered Saturday’s game having never passed for 200 yards in a game. He threw for 234 in the first half alone against the Cougars.
“I thought, certainly in the first half we got outcoached and we got outplayed,” Leach said.
Leach’s timeout proved effective, temporarily.
The WSU defense held OSU to just two yards over the next three plays, forcing the Beavers to concede possession. The Cougars began the ensuing drive with a 27-yard pass to River Cracraft. Gabe Marks forced a pass interference on the next play. But Cracraft later fumbled after hauling in a pass that would have given the Cougars first down, OSU recovered and the Cougars lost what momentum they had gained.
The Beavers made it a route with 7:04 left in the first half. Former starting quarterback Seth Collins, now a wide receiver, lined up in a wildcat formation with McMaryion at wide receiver. The ball was flipped to McMaryion, who flung it to Collins, who snuck out of the backfield, caught the pass and ran 46 yards untouched for his first receiving touchdown.
The Cougars had a chance to put the game away in the fourth quarter, having finally gotten a stop with the lead. But Falk overthrew Cracraft on fourth-and-two, giving OSU the ball on the WSU 43-yard line with 5:57 to play. At that point running backs Morrow and James Williams had 94 yards on 13 carries.
But WSU also held on fourth down, with Frankie Luvu and Shalom Luani stopping Nall on fourth-and-one to give WSU the ball and the lead with 3:53 left in the game. But there was still drama left in the night. Falk scrambled and slid to the turf before Bright Ugwoegbu slammed into him.
Ugwoegbu was ejected for targeting, and WSU’s starting quarterback left the game with a noticeable limp. He returned without missing a play, however, and the Cougars salted the game away with just minutes left before Saturday night gave way to Sunday morning.