PULLMAN – Saturday was a day to remember for Washington State football, even if the game itself was not particularly memorable.
The game, in fact, was downright bizarre.
The Cougars held off underdog Eastern Washington, 24-20, but only after star wide receiver Marquess Wilson was inserted into the game on defense on the game’s final play and batted away a “Hail Mary” pass in the end zone.
“He’s good at playing the ball in the air,” WSU coach Mike Leach said casually. “It really shouldn’t have come down to that.”
Wilson’s heroics came at the end of a fourth quarter that saw WSU lose starting quarterback Jeff Tuel with an apparent leg or knee injury; lose a fumble on the goal line; and lose two long touchdowns on holding penalties in the final two-plus minutes.
The Cougars offset those self-inflicted wounds with the help of a 60-yard field goal by Andrew Furney at the end of the first half; the first two touchdown catches of sophomore wideout Isiah Myers’ college career; and a blocked extra point by Toni Pole with 2:17 left that eliminated Eastern’s ability to tie the game with a field goal on the final drive.
The end result was a victory for the home team in the first game at revamped Martin Stadium. The first sellout crowd (33,598) in five years celebrated the stadium’s 40th season of football along with the 1972 team, which held a reunion.
Next up for Washington State is a Friday game at rebuilding UNLV (6 p.m., ESPN). The Cougars blasted the Rebels, 59-7, without an injured Tuel last year, and they might be without Tuel in the rematch.
Tuel walked gingerly off the field after being hit low as he completed a pass on the first play of the fourth period. He was in obvious pain as he was lying on the artificial turf.
“He’s 100 percent,” Leach said sarcastically. “I would, if anything, think he can run a 4.5 (seconds in the 40-yard dash) now instead of a 4.7.”
Joked Tuel: “He (Leach) took me out because I just basically was feeling too good.”
Leach discourages anyone connected with the team from discussing injuries. Asked if he’ll play at UNLV, Tuel said, “We’ll see. I’m going to get some work out of the (starting) blocks this week.”
Tuel and the Cougars (1-1) looked better on offense than in last week’s 30-6 loss at Brigham Young. For the second consecutive week, however, Leach and Tuel were peeved about inconsistency and costly penalties.
“We left 21 (unscored) points out there,” Tuel said. “The game shouldn’t have been that close ... we need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot.”
The Eagles (1-1), ranked ninth in the Football Championship Subdivision, ran 18 more offensive plays than WSU and had a 469-355 advantage in total yards. Eastern scored the only six points of the second half on a gorgeous, steamy afternoon.
The Cougars sacked Kyle Padron four times and held him to 26-for-54 passing for 379 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“I can’t turn the ball over like I did today,” Padron said. “I put my team in a bad spot.”
“Defensively, through the whole game, I felt we played pretty good,” WSU outside linebacker Cyrus Coen said. “You’ve got to give a lot of credit to Eastern Washington. They played a hell of a game.”
Tuel was 20-for-26 passing for 171 yards, two TDs and no interceptions. Backup Connor Halliday went 5-for-11 passing for 76 yards and an interception. One of the late holding penalties cost Halliday a 42-yard touchdown pass to Wilson.
Padron lost one of his favorite targets – senior wide receiver Greg Herd, who starred at Steilacoom High – when he was hit hard in the fourth quarter. The Eagles had no comment about Herd’s status.