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Washington State rewind: Cougs missed too many opportunities on offense to beat UW

Washington State Cougars quarterback Cameron Ward (1) slips pressure from Washington Huskies defensive end Zion Tupuola-Fetui (4) during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – A sneaky play, a what-could-have-been thing happened with under a minute to go in Saturday’s Apple Cup.

Washington was at the WSU 16, facing a second-and-long with 20 seconds to play. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. dropped back, which is when WSU edge Brennan Jackson bull-rushed through for a sack. He looked fired up.

Afterward, though, Jackson revealed something that might not have been obvious at first blush: He had a chance to jar the ball loose.

“On the last one, like I said, it’s a good sack,” Jackson said. “But the ball was out there, wanted to make a play, and that’s one that’s gonna haunt me for a long time.”

Turns out, Jackson was right. Check out a replay and it looks like Penix didn’t exactly tuck the ball in his chest when he went down. The ball was out there. It wouldn’t have been Jackson’s first time making a play like that this season – not even in the last two weeks.

Instead, we all know what happened next. UW kicker Grady Gross came out for a game-winning field goal and the Huskies celebrated with their fans on the field, ending the Cougars’ season without a bowl game.

“There’s just a couple moments that we gave them something,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “I thought we slowed down a really good offense. Defense was flying around, offense made some timely plays, and it just didn’t go our way.”

Thing is, though, the Cougs’ offense will lament a lot more about this one than their defense. That unit missed several opportunities, too many to expect to beat the No. 4 team (now No. 3 after the new rankings came out) on the road.

On so many occasions, this game was Washington State’s for the taking. For example: On UW’s first drive of the second half, WSU safety Jaden Hicks leaped and made an incredible interception, a one-handed snag on a jump ball. The Cougars’ sideline erupted. Their team had more momentum than they knew what to do with.

Instead, WSU’s offense couldn’t turn it into anything. The Cougars picked up a nice third-and-long conversion on a slant from Cam Ward to Josh Kelly but later in the drive, Ward held on to the ball too long and took a sack – for a loss of 11. One play later, he went down again, this time because right tackle Fa’alili Fa’amoe couldn’t hold up against UW edge Lance Holtzclaw.

Earlier in the game, WSU missed another opportunity. Its defense forced back-to-back incompletions for Penix, setting up a long field -goal try for Gross, who sailed it wide right. Dickert threw his fist on the sideline. He knew his team wasn’t just in the game – the Cougs had a chance to take the lead.

Except they didn’t. After seven plays, WSU got itself into a third-and-long thanks in part to left guard Rod Tialavea, who got beat and was flagged for a bad holding penalty. One play later, Ward threw an interception.

The Huskies needed just three plays to turn that into a touchdown, a long strike from Penix to Rome Odunze, who came open because WSU cornerback Cam Lampkin slipped at the line of scrimmage.

“We knew that our offense was going to be the one that, if we kept scoring, we’re gonna be in this game,” WSU receiver Lincoln Victor said. “Defense played lights out. It just came down to a few plays that we didn’t make and you wish you had those back.”

The missed chances came down to individual plays. Victor was involved in one of the bigger ones. It came in the final minutes, the Cougars looking at third-and-11 from around midfield with two minutes left. Ward climbed in the pocket, then uncorked a pass to Victor, who couldn’t hang on in double coverage.

The decision loomed large because Ward appeared to have a chance to tuck it and run. Here’s what he was seeing.

Could Ward have taken off and gotten all 11 yards? Maybe. He has always fashioned himself a thrower more than a runner, though, so perhaps this is the quarterback WSU signed up for. You take the bad with the good sometimes.

“I should have took off and ran, instead of trying to throw it to Linc,” Ward said. “You live for those moments right there, but at the end of the day, you gotta execute it. I know if you put me on Linc in that situation again, we would execute that next time, but we just gotta make smart decisions down in clutch time.”

These kinds of missed chances littered WSU’s outing. The Cougs didn’t have to play a perfect game to beat the Huskies, and they didn’t. But they did need to capitalize on the chances they had, especially in the fourth frame. Nick Haberer is a spectacular punter, but nobody in crimson and gray – not even him – wanted him to make the last play of the offense’s season.