Washington State had been there before. The Cougars hung with the Ducks for a half each of the last four years, so when WSU entered intermission tied 21-21 it wasn't an unfamiliar position. What was unfamiliar was Washington State's performance in the second half. In previous years the Ducks put the Cougars into a meat grinder and WSU simply couldn't keep pace. This year, WSU ran step-for-step with the Ducks for 56 minutes. While an improvement and a valiant effort, it still wasn't enough. Oregon survived Pullman, escaping with a 38-31 win.
You could point to dozens of plays during the game that led to the final outcome, but WSU's upset bid didn't die until Connor Halliday was sacked on fourth down with slightly less than four minutes to play. Trailing 38-31, the Cougars had driven into Oregon territory. They were set up with a 3rd-and-14 and the Ducks caught a break when an obvious pass interference penalty wasn't flagged. The Cougars went on fourth down, but for one of the few times all night, Halliday had no shot. The Ducks took possession back, ground out the clock and that was all she wrote.
The game, for WSU, was a combination of brilliant offense and maddening defense with just enough defensive success sprinkled on top to hang with the No. 2 team in the country. Connor Halliday threw the ball all over the field with WSU's stable of receivers trading big plays. Dom Williams roasted Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Vince Mayle imposed his will. River Cracraft came up with clutch catch after clutch catch. The running game got involved to with Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks combining to give WSU some punch on the ground. For most of the game, the offense was exactly what many expected from WSU when Mike Leach was hired.
The defense had a major handicap of going against Marcus Mariota who is a supremely talented college football player. If Oregon had an average Pac-12 quarterback instead of a Heisman Trophy candidate, they may have been chasing WSU all game. Whenever the Ducks needed a play, Mariota made it. WSU assisted with some bad breakdowns in the secondary, but Mariota was excellent. The Cougars sent the kitchen sink at the Ducks, getting consistent and effective pressive on Mariotia while limiting the Ducks rushing attack. The Cougars won the line of scrimmage, but the Ducks still connected on a number of big plays.
In previous years, the second half was all Ducks. This year, it was WSU who came out punching. The Cougars appeared on their way to a lead before Morrow was stripped from behind for a crucial turnover. Morrow was very good all night and has the makings of an excellent Pac-12 running back, but that one hurt. It was far from the end, however. The Ducks scored, the Cougars responded, the Ducks scored, the Cougars responded. Say what you want about the breakdowns on defense or a couple offensive miscues, but there is no questioning the Cougars' chin.
While the game could certainly be one of the invisible building blocks in WSU's rebuilding process, for now it's just a missed opportunity to pull a major upset and vault the season back in the right direction. WSU had the No. 2 team in the country on the ropes and blown coverages, dropped passes and a few other miscues let the Ducks off the hook. A valiant effort? Sure. A positive sign for the rest of the season? Maybe. But regardless a loss is a loss and the Cougars now have to regroup at 1-3 with a road trip to Utah next on the schedule.