The decisive moments in Washington State’s 37-34 victory over Rutgers on Saturday did not come when the Scarlet Knights aroused the ghosts of past Cougars’ losses with two go-ahead special teams scores in the fourth quarter.
Nor were the cascades of overpowering runs, broken-up passes, unfavorable play reviews or 45,536 rain-drenched but screaming partisans enough to sway the outcome in the home team’s favor.
Rather, the game was decided in the seconds that followed those perilous junctures that threatened WSU’s chances, when Luke Falk collected himself, said some affirmations and led the Cougars to the end zone, finally winning it with an 8-yard touchdown pass to River Cracraft with 13 seconds left.
It was a game that, in the eloquent words of wide receiver Gabe Marks, “will either take you all the way to the top or bring you all the way to the bottom in a heartbeat. You just have to learn to keep your emotions in check. You just have to focus on the next play and learn to not get caught up.”
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The most crucial moment came with 1:31 left in the fourth quarter. The Cougars had apparently just thrown the game away, throwing an incomplete pass on third down against a team that had no timeouts, and a return man who had already housed one kick.
That Scarlet Knight specialist, Janarion Grant, punished the Cougars again for kicking his way with a 55-yard return, which was an efficient way to take the lead for a team that couldn’t stop the clock, probably too efficient.
Falk and the Cougars had already been sent to their heels by the earlier Grant return, which gave Rutgers its first lead, 27-23, against a WSU team whose thus-far repressed bad habits — poor throws and dropped passes, shoddy tackling and penalties — were surfacing.
At that point, WSU coach Mike Leach had a little chat with his offense.
“I pulled up to the offense and said, ‘This is pretty exciting isn’t it? This is real exciting. Do you see how excited they are?’ I said, ‘Do you want this thing to be twice as exciting? March down there and score. It’ll be twice as exciting,’” Leach said. “And it was.”
The WSU team assumed the even-keeled personality of its coach and quarterback, defense included, but only after some setbacks. Over 4:34, encompassing the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarters, WSU’s defense gave up a pair of touchdowns.
Robert Martin’s 15-yard scoring run for Rutgers was the natural result of the defense’s sudden difficulties against a rushing attack that was averaging 7.4 yards-per-attempt since halftime.
Two defensive penalties cost the defense 30 yards on the next Rutgers drive, which ended with a 1-yard touchdown pass from Chris Laviano to Leonte Carroo. After that, the defense forced a fumble and a punt to end the final two Scarlet Knights’ drives.
“Credit to Rutgers, they are a great team, but it came down to us focusing on ourselves, the defense,” said WSU sophomore linebacker Peyton Pelluer. “If we go out every play like we have been doing in practice, then we can stop them.”
Falk came out hot during the game’s final drive, following the Leach speech, just as he did during that previous drive, and the one before it when he led the Cougars (1-1) to a field goal after Rutgers (1-1) scored and converted for two points to tie the game.
Whereas Falk occasionally missed open receivers when the Cougars had a less tenuous lead, he threw darts to open the do-or-lose drive. Falk completed consecutive passes of 23 and 24 yards to Cracraft, eating up half of the 90 yards between WSU’s start and desired finish.
The Cougars converted on fourth down with a 12-yard pass to Robert Lewis and thought they scored when running back Keith Harrington took a screen pass 30 yards to the end zone. Except officials ruled that Harrington stepped out of bounds at the 21-yard line
“I saw the thing up top, I saw the thing up top,” Leach said. “Without commenting or stepping over the line, the scoreboard suggested something different than the result that we got.”
But the Cougars were still able to get the final result they wanted. Falk rushed for 13 yards to the Rutgers 8-yard line, where he was sandwiched by Kiy Hester and Steve Longa.
“I think on the last drive you can’t slide,” Falk said. “You have to show your team that you’re trying to win the game.”
He won it on the next play, lofting the pass to Cracraft in the back of the end zone. The Scarlet Knights had no time for a counterpunch, only a comical kick return composed of desperate laterals.