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Sports >  WSU football

Jacob Thorpe: Collapse aside, Washington State has proved it can play with anyone

Sept. 24, 2022 Updated Thu., Oct. 6, 2022 at 2:57 p.m.

By Jacob Thorpe For The Spokesman-Review

Well, I guess Jake Dickert’s immersion into Cougar culture is complete. As far as late-game “Coug it” collapses go, however, Saturday’s deflating loss to Oregon doesn’t even make the pantheon.

Don’t believe me?

2013 New Mexico Bowl. Colorado in 2012.

Still not convinced?

Go to YouTube and find the 2019 game against UCLA.

WSU’s 44-41 loss to No. 15 Oregon on Saturday was a missed opportunity no doubt. (“Let’s see those lazy AP pollsters forget about the Cougars now!”) Feel free to put no stock in this particular stat, but when the Cougars scored to go ahead 34-22 with 5:54 left in the game, one of those online win probability calculators gave WSU a 98.1% chance to win.

But Saturday’s game was less about some curse put upon the Cougars by a jilted walk-on or poorly treated administrator decades ago, and more about a program that is still ascending running into one that has much more room for error. The Cougars proved throughout the game that the win at Wisconsin was no joke. This team can play with anyone. It just can’t play with Oregon, yet, for all four quarters.

“I think there are great ‘learns’ from this,” Dickert said after the loss. “There’s a lot of kids that are disappointed in that locker room. In big games, you gotta execute in the biggest moments. Oregon did and we didn’t.”

Before those biggest moments, the Cougars had shown an admirable ability to trade punches with a contender, particularly on offense. The Ducks came blazing out of halftime, scoring in just three plays to cut WSU’s lead to a pair of points. WSU responded with a long, methodical drive that ended in a Dean Janikowski field goal to settle any nerves.

The Cougars were nursing that five-point lead in the fourth quarter when, after the worst call in a game that also included the officials skipping a down with no correction, the defense forced its first three-and-out.

WSU certainly looked like the team in control on the drive that gave them a two-score lead with less than half a quarter to play. Cam Ward looked like the best of the bunch of transfer quarterbacks turning heads in Pac-12 play.

Ward’s free-and-easy improvisation with the ball kept the Cougars moving and the clock ticking. On one play, he looked to be corralled by the pass rush after sprinting to his right, only to about-face and find a receiver to his left who had an easy 25-yard gain. Later on that drive, he flipped a pass out of a sack on fourth down to keep the offense on the field.

But on the decisive drive against a talented team, the Cougars didn’t play to win, and so they lost.

A quick, predictable run for a loss put the Cougars in a tough passing situation. Oregon brought some heat to force an incompletion, and then a poor decision by a receiver in the heat of the moment to run out of bounds well short of a first down meant that Oregon didn’t need to use a timeout prior to WSU’s punt.

By turning their quarterback loose and playing with aggression, the Cougars had responded to each previous Ducks score with one of their own to stay in control. But on that drive and the ensuing defensive possession, WSU looked like a team hoping the clock would win the game for them.

And so Oregon, presented with an opportunity in a game that seemed out of reach a couple of minutes before, predictably scored. Bo Nix found Troy Franklin across the middle, and Jaden Hicks grasped at Franklin’s ankles and failed to trip up the Ducks WR.

Ward wilted on the ensuing possession, throwing a pass straight to Oregon linebacker Mase Funa, who scored to make up for the Nix pick-six earlier in the game.

In the end, WSU running back Nakia Watson’s final dive into the end zone with 1 second left was for the gamblers.

WSU’s rise has been rapid since Dickert took over, and the Cougars are in great shape for a bowl game at the end of the season. This team will be a tough out for every team it plays. But to beat the cream of its opponents, it will have to make the best parts of Saturday’s game routine.

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