The loss cements a losing season for the Cougars, who finish 6-7. Air Force, meanwhile, finishes 11-2.
The game was a microcosm of WSU’s season in so many ways. The stats were close; Air Force held just a 35-yard advantage overall, and WSU held a big advantage in yards per play, 7.3-5.0. But an inability to get off the field on defense combined with a key blunder and red zone impotence by the offense doomed the Cougars once again.
The game was pretty much the nightmare we all worried about coming into it. Air Force ran for 371 yards, holding onto the ball for a staggering 43:24. Because of that, WSU had just eight drives, and the Cougars simply could not maximize their opportunities: One drive ended after one play on an Anthony Gordon fumble, while two others ended inside the AFA 5-yard line when Max Borghi was stuffed on fourth down.
Conversely, Air Force scored on five of their seven drives.
It didn’t take long to see the problems that Air Force was going to pose. The Cougars moved the ball virtually at will from the very beginning, but critical errors caused them to leave points on the field.
On the opening drive of the game, the Cougs needed just four plays to cover 67 yards down to AFA’s 6-yard line. But the drive stalled out from there — a pair of incompletions were followed by a four-yard run by Max Borghi down to the AFA 2.
WSU went for it on 4th-and-Goal, again giving the ball to Borghi on a kind of power run with Clay Markoff as a lead blocker from an H-back position. It worked earlier in the drive for a gain of 17 yards, but this time it resulted in a gain of zero yards, and the drive was over with no points put on the board.
Air Force answered back with a drive that would foreshadow the rest of the game: An epic 20-play, 98-yard touchdown drive. It was a triple-option masterpiece that chewed up more than 12 minutes of clock to give the Falcons a 7-0 lead.
The Cougars got in the end zone on their second drive to tie it up — they again needed a 4th-and-Goal conversion, but this time they got it when Gordon found Dezmon Patmon from two yards out on what looked like his fourth read — and it looked like there was a little bit of hope that they could recover from the first empty possession when they held Air Force to just a field goal after the Falcons inexplicably threw the ball a couple of times on goal to go.
But the third drive was a disaster for WSU: On the first play, someone on the right side blew a blocking assignment and a rusher came free; Gordon was careless securing the ball, and the ensuing fumble set up Air Force on WSU’s 23. Four plays later, the Falcons were in the end zone again and holding a 17-7 lead.
Staring down the prospect of Air Force getting the ball to begin the second half, a touchdown with just 1:19 remaining was almost necessary to preserve any hope of winning the game. Gordon delivered when, facing 3rd-and-10 from his own 37, he found Tay Martin crossing for a 58-yard gain down to the Air Force 5-yard line.
On the next play, Gordon bought some time before eventually finding Borghi in the back of the end zone, and the team had a bit of life.
Air Force put an end to that within the first seven minutes of the second half.
The Falcons again did what they had done all night, marching 75 yards in 13 plays for another touchdown to take a 24-14 lead, then the WSU offense sputtered. On first down, Gordon had Dezmon Patmon wide open over the top of the defense, but he underthrew him and the throw was contested; still, Patmon should have caught the ball, but he dropped it. Then, after a no-gain run by Borghi, Patmon dropped another ball on the sideline that would have converted 3rd-and-9.
Facing fourth down from his own 29, Mike Leach punted. Given what had happened up until that point, it sure looked like it might have been waving the white flag.
But WSU finally got a stop, aided by one of AFA’s few negative plays — an illegal chop block penalty that put the Falcons in a 2nd-and-20 hole they couldn’t get out of — and the Cougs had life again.
It didn’t quite work out that way. WSU again moved the ball with ease, driving from their own 25 to the AFA 2-yard line in just seven plays. But facing yet another 4th down inside the five, the Cougs gave the ball to Borghi again, and again Borghi was stoned by the Falcons and the Cougars came up empty.
BUT! The defense wasn’t done! Another AFA negative play early in the ensuing drive — this time, a fumble on a pitch — put the Falcons in another hole they again couldn’t get out of. When they punted, the Cougs pulled out a trick:
Four plays and 31 yards later, WSU was finally back in the end zone as Gordon found Brandon Arconado for his 10th catch of the game to pull the Cougs to within three at 24-21.
Gordon's go-to guy finally gets his TD. ☑️@Brandonkainalu has 160 receiving yards tonight and hauled in this 13-yard pass to bring @WSUCougarFB back within three.— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) December 28, 2019
ESPN | #CheezItBowl pic.twitter.com/by4PhfDb1o
But the defense had run out of good plays: 10 runs, 60 yards, 6:09 ... game-winning TD.
Air Force’s Kadin Remsberg scores a TOUGH TD— B/R Betting (@br_betting) December 28, 2019
AFA (-2.5) up 31-21 late 4Qpic.twitter.com/hfYZlfqMaD
Needing a TD and an onside kick and another TD, the Cougs could barely get past midfield, and that was that.
Gordon finished with 351 yards on 42 attempts with three touchdowns, moving him up to 5th place on the all-time NCAA single-season passing list with 5,579 yards. Arconado finished with 11 catches for 167 yards and a touchdown to go over 1,000 yards for the season.