Washington State ends losing streak, but not impressively
Washington State needs turnovers, late rally to avoid ugly upset
PULLMAN — In the end, it almost had the feel of an Apple Cup. Or a Rose Bowl.
Almost anything but what it was, a 23-22 Washington State comeback victory over Montana State. After all, the Bobcats are from a lower NCAA division, have fewer scholarships, less resources and came in a decided underdog.
But when you're the Cougars and you've lost 10 consecutive games, when you are coming off a 65-17 shellacking to open the season at Oklahoma State, and when there are 26,356 spectators in a sun-drenched Martin Stadium getting their first chance to see this Cougar edition, well ...
"A win's a win," said WSU coach Paul Wulff, a comment echoed by more than one of his players.
"We're rebuilding, and we'll take a win," Wulff said. "We didn't play great and we found a way to win."
A tough way at that.
The Cougars (1-1) turned the ball over on their first offensive play for the second consecutive week, turned it over on their second possession and fell behind 6-0 just 11 minutes in.
After taking their first lead in regulation of a game since November of 2008 — in large part due to James Montgomery's 70-yard run on his way to 116 yards on 20 carries — they coughed it up in less than three minutes.
And they sputtered and turned the ball over again through the third quarter, trailing 22-7 with three minutes left before the fourth quarter.
That's when they seemed to get mad.
"We need to come out and really get after it," said Alex Hoffman-Ellis, who had a hand in igniting the comeback. "We can't have mental mistakes, just mistakes, period, on either side of the ball."
The defense finally got after it 42 minutes in, and it was Hoffman-Ellis who started it.
Coming on a late blitz, he was able to get his hand in the passing lane, deflected Denarius McGhee's pass into the air and into Myron Beck's hands. The turnover, Montana State's first of the season, gave the Cougars the ball at their 49. On the first play of the final quarter, quarterback Jeff Tuel found tight end Andrei Lintz in the end zone from 4 yards and WSU was within one score.
"We made a play on defense," Wulff said when asked about a turning point.
"I talk about momentum plays," he said. "Do you have guys that can make those? Do you have guys who can make the sack, who can make the interception, the guy who can reel off the big run?"
This day, WSU did.
Last week, when the Cougars closed to 17-10, they seemed almost surprised to be in the game. This week, they closed the deal.
"I feel like guys were a little more settled down," said Tuel, who got his first victory as a starting quarterback. "They knew what they had to do, knew they had to make plays."
The sophomore quarterback led WSU on a methodical drive, finally finding Jared Karstetter in the end zone from 19 yards out to pull WSU to 22-20. But he couldn't connect with Karstetter on the two-point conversion and, with 5:06 left, MSU still led, 22-20.
With Tyree Toomer supplying pressure on a safety blitz, McGhee then made a wobbly throw.
Hoffman-Ellis gathered in the ball at the 15 and bulled his way down to the MSU 2.
But three running plays brought the Cougars only a yard closer. So, with 2:13 remaining, Nico Grasu booted through a tough-angle 18-yard FG. WSU had scored 16 fourth-quarter points and had come all the way back.
"Now you know you can win," Wulff said. "Hopefully you can take it and build off it. I'm glad we went out there and won."
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