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Analysis: Washington State squanders scoring opportunities, Air Force soars to Cheez-It Bowl title

Washington State Cougars quarterback Anthony Gordon (18) fumbles the ball and it is recovered by Air Force Falcons Christopher Herrera during the first half of the Cheez-It Bowl on Friday, December 27, 2019, at Chase Field in Phoenix, Ariz. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PHOENIX – Max Borghi collected the handoff from Anthony Gordon, lifted his head and surveyed the area around him. Washington State’s sophomore, generally a gifted runner in tight spaces, had only a few yards to go but nowhere to maneuver as a wall of white jerseys collapsed on him.

On fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Borghi gained only half the yardage he needed before Air Force’s Jeremy Fejedelem and Jake Ksiazek made a collective tackle to stop Borghi 1 yard short.

It was only just the eighth play of the Cheez-It Bowl, at a point in the game when the Cougars had more than enough time to recover from early mistakes, but few moments loomed larger in a 31-21 loss to the Falcons on Friday night in front of 34,105 fans at Chase Field.

If there was a play more consequential than that one, it was the one that came three quarters later, when Borghi – WSU’s magic man with 15 touchdowns this season – was held up on a fourth-and-2 from the 5-yard line.

Two opportunities squandered and with them, a rare chance to win consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history.

Instead, the Cougars lost for the seventh time – their season now defined by disappointment rather than success at one game under .500 – and they finished with a losing record for the first time since 2014.

“You’ve got to put it in, that’s all that counts,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “That’s all that counts, did we score or did we not, or did they score or did they not?”

That was just half of it for a team that struggled on defense containing the vaunted Air Force triple option, which usually converted when it needed to, rushing for 371 yards on 5.4 yards per attempt and going 3 for 3 on fourth downs.

“Then in the meantime, we let them eat the whole clock up because of our inability to stop them,” Leach said. “Which makes each series precious. Then offense, we squandered opportunities that would’ve allowed us to win this game.”

The first two drives of the Cheez-It Bowl spoke measures about the final result. The Cougars marched downfield with the utmost efficiency, needing only seven plays and less than 3 minutes to move 70 yards and set up Borghi on the 1-yard line.

WSU relinquished that chance and didn’t see the ball again until the second quarter. Air Force’s unique, slow-moving triple option ran 19 plays to fill out the remainder of the first quarter and quarterback DJ Hammond III ran into the end zone from a yard out to open the second, giving the Falcons a 7-0 lead.

The numbers on their scoring drive? Twenty plays and 98 yards in 12 minutes, 23 seconds.

“Our whole goal for the defense was get the ball back to the offense,” WSU nose tackle Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei said. “We weren’t able to do that. We left some plays out there and they were just able to keep on running the clock.”

The Falcons set a Cheez-It Bowl record, possessing the ball for more than 43 minutes.

Kadin Remsberg, Air Force’s workhorse in the backfield, rushed for a season-high 178 yards on 26 carries and dove into the end zone with 3:50 remaining, effectively sealing the result.

“Our whole goal for the defensive front was to collapse on the middle to make them bounce it out,” Aiolupotea-Pei said. “… We weren’t able to keep our pads low and they were able to run through the middle and they were also able to gash us on the sides as well.”

The Cougars were held under 30 points for just the fourth time this season, yet Gordon still threw for 351 yards, completing 28 of 42 passes for three touchdowns. His top receiver, once again, was redshirt senior Brandon Arconado, who had a touchdown and finished with a career-high 167 receiving yards, which came on 11 catches.

Asked for a recap of the 2019 season, which saw the Cougars win two straight to clinch a bowl berth late in the year, but also lose three separate Pac-12 games by a combined 10 points, Leach talked about “ups and downs.”

“We’ve gone to five straight bowls, which as far as going to bowls, we’re breaking our own records,” Leach said. “… These seniors here, I can’t say enough about them. There’s guys on this team that were part of us going to five bowls, which has never happened in the history of the school. Their service to our program is something I’ll forever be grateful for.

“But no, I thought you have to keep pushing the envelope. I thought we were capable of more and we’re going to do everything we can to achieve that as we go into our offseason.”