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Analysis: Washington State could’ve used mulligan three times during final drive of narrow loss to USC

Washington State Cougars running back James Williams  runs the ball into a wall of USC defenders during the second half  Friday at L.A. Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. USC won the game 39-36. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

LOS ANGELES – There wasn’t much that could have been said to sweeten the situation, or alleviate the pain Washington State players felt after watching a 13-point lead wither away Friday night at the Coliseum.

No, the Cougars won’t wear their 39-36 loss to USC as a badge of honor, even if they did manage to beat a five-point spread, or threaten one of the country’s most impressive home win streaks, or convince a national ESPN audience – and the 50,000-plus in attendance – they belong on the same stage as SC’s blue-chip stars.

Spending 15 minutes inside WSU’s interview tent following the game, you didn’t get the sense the Cougars (3-1, 0-1) were ready to view their first loss of the 2018 season through the glass-half-full lens.

“It’s pretty frustrating, for sure,” WSU freshman running back Max Borghi said. “It was a good game overall, but at the end of the day, just little plays on every side of the ball that could’ve changed the game.”

Yes, a long trail of “what ifs” and “could have beens” followed the Cougars home to the Palouse after they squandered an opportunity to beat USC in consecutive years for the first time in program history. They also wasted a chance to open with a 4-0 record for the second straight year – something that hasn’t happened in Pullman since the early 1900s.

WSU’s defensive backs sputtered time and time again trying to cover USC’s hypertalented wide receivers and the Cougars accrued more pass interference calls in four quarters than they had through the first three games of the season.

“I think they were athletic,” Mike Leach said – the WSU coach also offering, “I don’t think that’s the entire thing.”

Yet, for as many defensive errors as they committed through the first three quarters, the Cougars probably could have used their mulligan on one of three plays late in the fourth. You can take your pick.

1. The one that drew the most ire from WSU fans – and reasonably – came on first-and-10 as the Cougars were creeping toward the USC end zone with less than 3 minutes to play. As Gardner Minshew released an incomplete pass to Renard Bell, USC outside linebacker Porter Gustin began to wind up and launch himself at the WSU quarterback. A stomach-turning replay of the collision shows Gustin spearing his helmet into Minshew’s, violently jolting the QB’s head back in a whiplash-like motion as he falls to the turf. Officials missed it, Gustin escaped his second targeting ejection in two weeks and the Cougars lost out on a precious opportunity to advance the ball 15 yards. WSU would have had first-and-10 from the 15-yard line with about 2:40 to play.

2. The officials may have bungled one play, but the Cougars will direct the finger at themselves for the next two. Two plays after Gustin’s nasty hit, the Cougars had third-and-6 from the 21-yard line and still 1:50 – an eternity – on the game clock. Minshew and his receivers, to this point, had treated the game like batting practice, connecting 37 times for 344 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The WSU QB had shown superb awareness in the pocket, delivering quick, short strikes whenever he sensed pressure, and then biding his time to make stronger, intermediate throws when the protection gave him a few more seconds. But Minshew had noticed something in USC’s defensive setup that led him to switch from a pass to a run on third-and-6. The QB made the check, handed off to James Williams and watched a horde of Trojans bottle up the running back at the line of scrimmage. “It’s just a play call. We have faith in all our guys,” wide receiver Easop Winston Jr. said. “No matter whose hands we put the ball in, we expect it to work and we’re going to get the first down and do what we need to do to score.” Minshew later put the blame on himself, admitting “that was all on me … that was really stupid.”

3. So, with 1:50 to play and fourth-and-6 on deck, the Cougars trotted out redshirt freshman kicker Blake Mazza for a game-tying field goal from 38 yards out. Mazza had smacked a career-long 50-yard kick through the uprights earlier on, but the Cougars had also botched a PAT after going up 30-17 early in the third quarter. The Trojans had spotted a tendency earlier on in the game and made an adjustment in preparation for the final kick. WSU guard Christian Haangana had been purposely falling forward while blocking for previous field goals. After USC linebacker Cameron Smith barked out instructions, Trojans lineman Jay Tufele ran through the line unblocked and stuffed Mazza’s attempt with his left hand. “I saw their guard lunging and falling and so I knew that if we ran it right it would work perfectly,” Smith said. “It was one of those things we practice and planned and it worked our way.”

The “what ifs” and “could have beens” turn into coachable moments this week as the Cougars quickly turn their attention to the next test, a 3 p.m. game against unbeaten Utah (3-0) on Saturday at Martin Stadium.

“I think it showed everybody who we are and what we’re capable of,” Borghi said of Friday’s loss, “but now we just have to get ready for next week.”