PULLMAN – Midway through the fourth quarter, all signs pointed to victory for Washington State.
The Cougars led by 12 points and seemed well in control – a huge win over a ranked opponent was theirs for the taking.
About 6 minutes later, WSU was dealt a heartbreaking defeat.
The No. 15 Oregon Ducks swiped the momentum during a late surge. They picked apart WSU’s secondary and took their first lead of the game with 1:12 on the clock, then sealed the deal with an interception returned for a touchdown.
Oregon piled up 29 points in the fourth quarter – 14 in the final 2:46 – and stunned WSU in a thrilling Pac-12 matinee on Saturday at a sold-out Gesa Field, handing the Cougars a 44-41 loss.
“It hurts,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “We’ve got a lot of kids who are disappointed in there. They should be proud of the way they played and fought. … To win big football games, you gotta execute in the biggest moments. Oregon did and we didn’t.”
The Cougars (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) faltered in crunch time, squandering an opportunity to take an early-season lead in the Pac-12 race.
WSU created a 34-22 buffer with 6:42 on the clock after a long possession that featured plenty of highlights from quarterback Cameron Ward, who capped the drive with a toss-sweep to slotback Robert Ferrel for a short touchdown. WSU’s home crowd burst into a frenzy. The Cougars had a momentous win in their grasp.
But the magic soon began to fade. The advantage quickly slipped away.
“It wasn’t just one thing. It was them outexecuting us in the fourth quarter,” Dickert said. “We didn’t have an opportunity to rush the passer and affect the quarterback and we didn’t make plays in the secondary.”
Quarterback Bo Nix guided the Ducks (3-1, 1-0) downfield in 3 minutes, picking up a critical fourth-down conversion near midfield, and cut the Cougars’ lead to five points with a goal-line TD pass. WSU’s offense, trying to preserve its lead and milk the clock, stumbled and punted after three plays.
Nix capitalized with a 50-yard touchdown strike to Troy Franklin – one of many Ducks receivers to give WSU’s secondary fits throughout the game. Gesa Field went quiet as Oregon snatched its first lead, 37-34.
“We got them out of the run game. They went to a lot of empty sets and passing a lot,” WSU linebacker Travion Brown said of the Ducks’ rally. “Obviously, we made some mistakes when they went more to the air. We gotta get better as a group there.”
Two plays later, with WSU’s offense on its last breath, the Ducks clinched their comeback win. Ward attempted a quick pass outside, but Oregon edge rusher Mase Funa was waiting on the screen play. He snagged a pick and raced it back to give his team a 10-point lead. The Cougars added a TD with 2 seconds remaining.
“Not turn the ball over,” Ward said when asked what he can build on after his first loss as WSU’s QB. “That’s really all I got to say. I can’t have a pick-6 in the two-minute drill to try to beat a Top 25 team. Just can’t do that.”
WSU’s Air Raid passing game put together its most productive showing of the season. Ward completed 37 of 48 passes for 375 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. He added a short rushing TD to open the scoring.
Ward completed 29 of his first 33 attempts before a third-quarter interception. Rookie receiver Leyton Smithson bobbled the catch as he fell to the ground and Ducks cornerback Trikweze Bridges ripped it away. Other than his two interceptions, Ward gave WSU a top performance. He navigated traffic in the backfield and stacked up highlight-reel passes.
“You saw the best of Cam today,” Dickert said of the transfer QB, who made a couple of improvisational plays late in the game that went viral on college football Twitter. “He has magic in his hands. … He was gritty, he was tough and he got hit. I give a lot of credit to the whole offense. I thought they were sharp today. They played tough, but we gotta be able to run the ball a bit better.”
The Cougars’ ground game was bottled up, finishing with 41 yards on 24 carries (1.7 yards per rush). But running back Nakia Watson made for a reliable check-down target, gaining 68 receiving yards.
The Cougars’ offense wasn’t the problem. A usually sound WSU defense – a unit known its stellar play early this season – crumbled against the Ducks’ balanced, fast-paced attack.
Oregon amassed 624 yards. Nix completed 33 of 44 passes for 428 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
“They protected well and we couldn’t affect them,” Dickert said.
WSU entered the game tied for second nationally with 14 sacks, but didn’t manage one against Oregon, which hasn’t surrendered a sack this year.
“They had good schematics to roll one way, then throw it back across the field, and we didn’t execute at all.”
The Ducks torched the Cougars on downfield passes and found room to run outside the tackles. Oregon totaled 21 passing plays of 15-plus yards and runs of 10 or more yards – including completions of 55, 50, 42 and 38 yards against an inexperienced secondary that was playing without starting strong safety Jordan Lee.
“You’re not going to win a lot of games giving up 600 yards of offense,” Dickert said. “It starts with me. We’re going to get it fixed. We’re going to get it right. We gotta make plays when we have the opportunities, especially in the secondary.
“Our guys are mature enough to come and respond, especially on the defensive side of the ball. This isn’t going to sit well and they’re going to be hungry to get better and learn from this.”
WSU’s defense showed cracks in the first half, but buckled down in the red zone, holding Oregon to field-goal tries on both of its first two possessions. On their third possession, the Ducks advanced inside the Cougars’ 10-yard line, but WSU linebacker Francisco Mauigoa jumped an out route and took the interception back 96 yards for a TD – the second-longest pick-6 in WSU history – to open a 17-6 lead midway through the second period.
“We just couldn’t sustain it,” Dickert said of WSU’s red-zone defense. “(The Ducks) were getting big, chunk yards on us to get down there.”
Oregon cut the WSU edge to 17-15 with an explosive drive out of the halftime locker room. The Cougars responded with a field goal, then forced Oregon into its first punt of the day to set up Ward’s 15-yard TD pass to De’Zhaun Stribling, one of five WSU receivers with five or more catches and 50-plus yards.
The Ducks answered with an 84-yard TD drive before Ward’s dazzling scoring drive, which put the Cougars back up by 12.
“It’s tough to flush any loss, especially when you’re up by a score or two with 5 minutes to go,” Ferrel said. “I bet that’s going to be a point of emphasis this week – to finish.”
The Cougars will need to regroup this week as they prepare for a homecoming matchup against the Cal Golden Bears on Saturday at Gesa Field.
“My choice is to keep believing and to keep going and to come back to work,” Dickert said. “I’ll be in early to find solutions, and I’m gonna get it to these guys and they’re going to respond with resiliency. We lost to a good football team and we are a good football team, and we gotta go prove it.”