Offense came easy Thursday night as Washington State and Rutgers opened their 2014 football seasons at CenturyLink Field.
But in the end, it was a late special teams mistake by WSU that opened the door for the Scarlet Knights to emerge with a 41-38 victory.
“It was a spotty performance,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “It wasn’t that bad a performance, but we gave up way too many (big plays).”
By the fourth quarter, the teams were swapping scores regularly enough where any unsuccessful possession registered almost like the break of a serve in tennis.
That seemed to work in the Cougars’ favor when they stopped Rutgers on downs and seemed about to give their sizzling offense a chance to build on a 38-34 lead.
However, Rutgers’ Johnathan Aiken jolted the ball from punt returner River Cracraft. Given another chance, the Scarlet Knights offense took advantage, matching 50 yards to what proved to be the winning touchdown.
That score came with almost three and a half minutes left, meaning the Cougars’ offense had a chance. But this time they were stopped around midfield when Connor Halliday’s fourth down pass to Cracraft was foiled — again by Aiken.
That stop wasted some startling offense numbers by the Cougars, who piled up 538 yards — 532 of them through the air, where Halliday was 40-for-56 passing with five touchdowns and one interception.
The Scarlet Knights were more balanced: 281 passing yards and 215 rushing yards, 173 of those by Paul James.
It was Rutgers first game as a Big Ten school, its first meeting with Washington State, and its first win in five tries against a Pac-12 team.
“Real tough loss,” Halliday said. “Coach Leach and all of our coaches talk about building a legacy, and legacies are born in a drive like that. We got the ball with two minutes and a chance to go win it, and we floundered. ... It’s all well and good that we work hard, but when it’s winning time, you’ve got to go out there and put a drive together.”
For Washington State, the new season began about as ominously as possible as the Cougars fell behind 7-0 in the first 16 seconds.
On the first play from scrimmage, Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova dropped back and lofted a pass to an open Leonte Carroo, who completed the 78-yard score.
Things didn’t get immediately better when the Cougars got the ball. Washington State’s first eight plays of the new season were all passes. However, that eighth was intercepted by Rutgers’ Justin Goodwin.
WSU finally got on the board on its third possession: a 22 yard field goal by redshirt freshman Erick Powell — the first points of his college career.
By the middle of the second quarter, both offenses were revving, and Rutgers held a 21-17 lead at halftime.
Then the Cougars opened the third quarter with consecutive touchdown drives, and with Halliday completing 13 of 15 passes for 150 yards and capping both with TD passes. The first was a 7-yard slant to Cracraft. The second was a 14 yarder to Isiah Myers in traffic.
However, the Scarlet Knights’ offense put up points with enough efficiency to trail 31-24 as the game headed into the fourth quarter. And minutes in, they regained the lead on a 29-yard pass from Nova to a twisting John Tsimis in the end zone.
WSU needed only six plays and 2 minutes, 31 seconds to travel 67 yards for another touchdown and another lead. The final 5 yards came on a Halliday pass to Rickey Galvin, who broke a tackle on his way in. That play put WSU up, 38-34, and sent Halliday over the 500-yard passing mark for the third time in his career. However, all those yards and points didn’t turn out to be enough.
This 12th edition of The Seattle Game drew an announced crowd of 30,927 to CenturyLink Field. WSU fell to 5-7 in the games. No additional cross-Cascades “home” games are planned.
Washington State returns to action Sept. 5 at Nevada.