PULLMAN – The final score said it all, but the rout Saturday night by No. 8 Washington State over Arizona started with a nifty defensive play by a cornerback who raced back, got his hands on the ball and made a play.
The Cougars (10-1, 7-1 Pac-12) had just taken a 7-0 lead Saturday after running back James Williams plunged in from the 1. The Wildcats (5-6, 4-4), behind quarterback Khalil Tate, faced a third-and-12 when Tate heaved a pass.
Washington State’s Marcus Strong zeroed in on the ball and snatched it out of the air. The turnover allowed Gardner Minshew and company to drive down to give the Cougars a 14-point lead midway through the first quarter en route to the 69-28 thrashing of Arizona.
“That was huge,” Minshew said of the Strong interception. “We felt like we had created some momentum there. And then to be able to get the ball back so quick just helped us stay in rhythm.
“Any time our defense forces those, we feel like we owe it to them to go out and score.”
Coach Mike Leach credited Strong, who had two of the team’s four turnovers, for helping contain Arizona’s Tate and running back J.J. Taylor, who was held to only 24 yards rushing.
“Marcus Strong did a pretty good job. He hustled around, ran hard to the ball and continues to get better,” Leach said.
Strong, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound junior cornerback, credited going against players like Easop Winston, Tay Martin, Dez Patmon and Jamire Calvin in practice every day to prepare him for Pac-12 opponents.
“It’s pretty exciting anytime you can do something to change the game like that,” he said of his interception.
Then later in the second quarter, Arizona was driving and had the ball on the Washington State 3-yard line. On third down, running back Gary Brightwell got stripped by WSU’s Jahad Woods and the ball squirted into the end zone.
Woods “punched it out. I got off my block and I ran over and I got on the ball,” Strong said. “It wouldn’t have happened without Jahad. But, it was pretty cool to get on the ball twice in one game.”
Two plays after Strong recovered that fumble, Minshew hit Tay Martin on a 50-yard touchdown to make the score 55-14.
But the most bizarre play of night came on a kickoff.
Just four seconds after Minshew hit Calvin Jackson, Jr., for a 6-yard touchdown pass to give the Cougars a 35-14 lead over Arizona, WSU’s Jack Crane lined up to kick it off.
Crane’s kick sent the ball high and short, which Leach later said was by design. But it hit the turf and tumbled toward the end zone. Patmon tried to corral the ball and failed before backup receiver Kainoa Wilson secured it for a touchdown.
“We wanted to pop it up and hope that we could get them inside the 25,” Leach said.
Asked if he’s ever seen a kickoff react like that, he said “maybe not one that rolled that far backwards as dramatically.
“I’ve got to be honest. Funny stuff happens on those kickoffs,” he said. “Yeah, it was a good play. It was a pleasant surprise that it went our direction.”
Wilson said he was just running downfield when he saw the ball skip off the turf and tumble towards the end zone.
“A couple guys started to jump on it and I saw it squirt out and my eyes got big,” Wilson said. “So, I just ran to it and tried to jump on it.”
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