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Analysis: Records fall, promises kept as Washington State outlatsts Oregon State in thriller to earn bowl berth

Washington State Cougars running back Max Borghi (21) reacts after scoring the game winning touchdown during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, November 23, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 54-53. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN –Max Borghi called his shot. Then made his house call.

With four seconds on the game clock, more than 10,000 fans chanting his name behind the east end zone and two yards to work with, the Washington State sophomore collected the ball from Anthony Gordon, tucked it into his arms and lowered his head.

He could’ve chewed up 10 yards. Borghi only needed two.

Bold in his predictions and apparently in his play, WSU’s standout back scored with two seconds remaining in a game that went back and forth until Borghi finally crossed the goal line, securing a 54-53 victory over Oregon State that guaranteed a fifth-consecutive bowl appearance for Mike Leach and his resilient Cougars.

“I thought we were tough, I thought we played hard, I thought we had a certain amount of dumbness mixed in there,” Leach said of a team that gave up 601 total yards of offense, allowed the opponent to recover a late onside kick and turned over the ball five times, but made the crucial plays in a game that featured two lead changes and 48 points in the fourth quarter. “Tough and dumb is better than soft and smart. Right now, I would say we’re fairly tough but medium intelligence, is what I think we are.”

Most important, the Cougars are bowl-eligible – something that might not have been such a certainty had they left it up to the final week of the season, when WSU (6-5, 3-5) will attempt to end a six-game losing streak against Washington (6-5, 3-5) in the Apple Cup at Husky Stadium.

Borghi guaranteed Saturday’s win as he left a similar news conference one week earlier, stating after a win over Stanford, “We just gotta carry it into next week, and have a great week of practice and prepare for Oregon State because we’re goin’ bowlin’, guaranteeing that, because we’re gonna win next week.”

Then he signed off: “See ya later.”

Borghi’s signoff line Saturday was obviously the winner, but he helped WSU’s cause multiple times in an eventful fourth quarter, extending the Cougars’ lead to 10 points when he plowed into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown to make it 42-32.

But the defense couldn’t hold its end of the bargain. The Cougars were inspired in the third quarter, holding OSU’s potent offense to zero points, but they bent, broke and broke again in the fourth, giving up 29 points and touchdowns on four consecutive possessions.

The Cougars were still in command somewhat at 42-39, but OSU coach Jonathan Smith, known to pull a trick out of his hat when it’s least expected, called an onside kick with 7:30 to play, and the ball skimmed off Justus Rogers and fell to OSU’s Andre Bodden.

Smith’s offense worked quickly and got into the end zone, when quarterback Jake Luton found a wide-open Jermar Jefferson on a wheel route and threw to the sophomore running back for a 39-yard score.

Another cataclysmic event followed for the Cougars. Gordon’s short pass to Dezmon Patmon was bobbled and claimed by OSU’s Omar Speights, giving the Beavers possession at the WSU 27-yard line. Jefferson carried the ball four times to set up his fourth touchdown of the game, catching a short pass from Luton to make it 53-42 with 4:17 left on the clock.

While that seemed to put a crater-sized gap between the Cougars and their bowl hopes, even on the sideline, players kept their spirits high.

“A whole lot of ups and downs, it kind of teaches our team the whole principle,” Gordon said. “You can never give up, you never know when the game’s truly done. You never know when we don’t have a shot or do have a shot.”

Gordon led the offense on a seven-play, 75-yard drive, and Patmon atoned for his earlier mistake by reeling in a 14-yard touchdown to trim the deficit to 53-48.

WSU’s onside kick wasn’t successful, but for the first time in the fourth quarter, the defense was. Luton handed off to his horse, Jefferson, on three straight plays, but the Beavers came up short and faced fourth-and-4. They stayed aggressive, leaving the offense on the field.

“You convert on fourth down and you win the game,” Smith said. “We were going to chase that win and didn’t get it.”

Luton was pressured, and the quarterback threw incomplete to Teagan Quitoriano, turning over the ball on downs.

Unbothered by the moment – easily the biggest and most dire of his short career as WSU’s starter – Gordon completed passes to Brandon Arconado, Borghi, Tay Martin and former junior college teammate Easop Winston Jr. to set the Cougars up on the 2-yard line.

Chants of “Borghi! Borghi! Borghi!” rang from one end of the venue to the other, and OSU’s defense, expecting WSU’s Air Raid to throw, left the box open, making it an easy choice.

“They were pretty ready for the pass, they thought we were going to throw to that trips side it seemed like,” Gordon said. “I was like, ‘Geez, I think we’re going to walk in if we run it.’ I kind of ran it by Max was like, ‘Hurry up. Check it. Let’s go.’ And I was like, ‘All right, let’s do it,’ and found the end zone.”

Borghi walked in. And walked off.