EL PASO, Texas – Although a 21-point comeback victory wasn’t in the cards for a severely shorthanded Washington State football team, coach Jake Dickert would agree that the Cougars’ last performance of 2021 was on-brand.
Given plenty of reason to fold throughout its wild year and its turbulent Sun Bowl finale, WSU refused to concede defeat.
“It’s been the story of our season,” Dickert said. “There’s been many times where our guys could have went the other way and could have quit on this game, and they kept fighting. I’m proud of their fight and resolve. We just fell short.”
The Cougars, held scoreless and limited to under 50 yards of offense in the first half, turned this one into a thriller down the stretch.
They roared back behind their walk-on quarterback and their never-say-die defense, but their late rally wasn’t quite enough in a 24-21 loss to Central Michigan on a rainy Friday morning at a sparsely populated Sun Bowl Stadium.
WSU (7-6) outscored the Chippewas (9-4) by 18 points after halftime, erasing a 21-0 deficit.
“They started fast on us and we had to get back into it,” Cougars edge Ron Stone Jr. said. “I don’t think anyone quit on our team. That’s something you can always count on for us.”
The Cougars trimmed CMU’s advantage to three points with about 3 minutes to play when sophomore QB Victor Gabalis – filling in for injured starter Jayden de Laura – connected with wideout Donovan Ollie on a 56-yard pass to set up a 16-yard rainbow scoring pass to slot Lincoln Victor.
After forcing a quick three-and-out, WSU regained possession deep in its territory with 2:41 on the clock, but a fourth-and-5 completion fell 1 yard shy .
As a nod to the bowl game’s sponsor – Kellogg’s – CMU players showered coach Jim McElwain with Frosted Flakes cereal after he led the Chippewas to their first bowl win since 2012, a result that also marked the Mid-American Conference’s first bowl win over a Power Five program in 18 years.
“I’ve wanted a Power Five win for a long time, ever since I’ve been at Central,” said CMU defensive end Troy Hairston, who made a living in the Cougars’ backfield all game.
CMU pocketed one of its best wins in program history. On short notice, too.
The Chippewas replaced Miami at the Sun Bowl after the Hurricanes’ program opted out of the game Sunday because of issues relating to COVID-19.
CMU’s originally scheduled postseason foe, Boise State, did the same Monday.
The Chippewas were left without an opponent and stranded in Tucson, Arizona, so Sun Bowl organizers scraped together a new contest.
“This has been a hectic deal,” McElwain said. “But it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are – you go out to win.”
The circumstances for the Cougars were less than ideal.
They played without mainstay offensive tackles Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan. Senior running backs Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh didn’t make the trip to west Texas, either.
To make matters worse, star slotback Calvin Jackson Jr. was sidelined in the second quarter by an undisclosed injury, and de Laura sustained an unspecified lower-body injury that kept him out during the second half.
De Laura absorbed three of WSU’s five sacks allowed and was often scrambling for his life behind a makeshift O-line that was tormented by CMU’s defensive ends.
He completed 9 of 19 passes for 45 yards. Running back Nakia Watson – the Cougars’ third-stringer this year who was making his first start – struggled to find running lanes and was held to 58 yards on 15 carries.
“Their edge rushers were the biggest ones that kinda gave us some issues,” said Dickert, who was coaching his first game since his interim tag was removed Nov. 27. “They were aggressive. … They used speed against our two new tackles. I think they took advantage of that.”
When Gabalis relieved de Laura, the Cougars seemed to opt for quicker passes off one-step drops.
Gabalis, an Everett native, found his footing after a few series and spurred WSU’s lagging offense when he hit Victor for a 55-yard slant completion.
“We’ve been through so much adversity as a team, especially this week,” Gabalis said, referring to the short week of preparation. “We just went out there (in the second half) and we were ready to go.”
Gabalis exited the game briefly later that drive after taking a punishing hit as he released an incomplete pass. Slotback Travell Harris shifted to the QB position for one play and darted in from 5 yards out on a wildcat snap.
A possession later, Gabalis pulled the Cougars to within a score, firing a short TD pass to De’Zhaun Stribling on fourth down.
“He’s always stayed ready,” Dickert said of Gabalis, who completed 12 of 23 passes for 180 yards and two scores. “He really gave us a good spark.”
As did timely plays from WSU’s defense. Linebacker Jahad Woods pounced on Nichols’ unforced fumble in the red zone early in the third to prevent CMU from perhaps going up by four touchdowns.
“We should have made (the score) a lot worse,” McElwain said.
Fellow Cougar LB Travion Brown jumped a Chippewas screen pass for an interception just before Gabalis’ scoring strike to Stribling.
Stone blocked a chip-shot field-goal attempt on CMU’s first possession of the fourth quarter.
“We’ve been really opportunistic in taking the ball away, creating some field position and then the offense capitalizing on those takeaways,” Dickert said. “I thought that’s what flipped the momentum in the second half.”
But WSU’s offense shot itself in the foot too many times for the Cougars to complete the comeback. Watson was ruled short on a fourth-and-1 run midway through the fourth quarter, allowing the Chippewas to fashion a 24-14 buffer with a 43-yard field goal.
WSU marched past midfield on the ensuing drive, but opted to run on a third-and-10 – Watson got stuffed – before Gabalis’ fourth-and-long incompletion at about the 8-minute mark.
The Cougars punted seven times in the first half and went three-and-out on six possessions.
It appeared they’d shaken out of the funk early in the second quarter when Jackson collected a 32-yard reception and Watson added a 40-yard scamper outside. But they came up empty when holder Nick Haberer bobbled a snap on a field-goal attempt.
CMU cashed in on short fields on two first-half touchdowns.
After WSU’s Travell Harris fumbled a kick return, Chippewas running back Lew Nichols III – the country’s leading rusher – scored from 1 yard out. Nichols tallied 120 yards behind an O-line that was missing NFL-caliber tackles in Luke Goedeke and Bernhard Raimann.
“(WSU) might have been missing some guys, but let me tell you something else: We were missing guys,” McElwain said. “And you know what? We didn’t care. We just went out and played. That’s the way it is.”
Just before halftime, stellar CMU return man Kalil Pimpleton took a punt 45 yards and into the red zone.
Chippewas quarterback Daniel Richardson evaded pressure on a third-and-goal from the Cougars’ 15 and lofted a touchdown pass to tight end Joel Wilson, who used his big body to separate from WSU’s defensive backs.
“The one play that stands out to me is that third-and-15,” Dickert said. “We need to execute and hold them to a field goal there.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Cougs newsletter
Get the latest Cougs headlines delivered to your inbox as they happen.