Nobody is going to classify this as a masterpiece performance, but WSU did enough to move to 3-0 in Pac-12 play and 4-2 overall with a 27-21 homecoming victory over UCLA in the rain on Saturday night.
The rushing game that had keyed the three-game winning streak heading into tonight went largely unused, and Luke Falk was uncharacteristically average. Some of that had to do with the weather, and some of that had to do with UCLA’s defense just being pretty darned good.
That said, the Cougars had done enough through three quarters to keep the game firmly in hand. The contest looked to be more or less sewn up when the Cougs put their third rushing TD in the end zone to go up 24-7 late in the third quarter. The Bruins had next-to-no success moving the ball, except for a TD when WSU turned the ball over deep in its own territory.
But as it so often is with these Cougs, nothing is easy.
UCLA quarterback Mike Fafaul, starting in place of the injured Josh Rosen, started to find a rhythm. The Bruins covered 75 yards in 15 plays to draw within 10 at 24-14. It ended with Fafaul finding Jordan Lasley in the back of the end zone with 11:37 to go in the game. The key play was a defensive holding penalty on Jalen Thompson after WSU appeared to have stopped UCLA on 3rd-and-15.
After a drive in which the Cougs ran the ball repeatedly in an effort to drain the clock ended with a field goal, UCLA went back to work. This time, they covered 63 yards in less than two minutes to put the ball in the end zone and somehow pull within six points with just over three minutes to go.
Cougar bottoms everywhere were sufficiently puckered. And they got even more puckered when WSU came out throwing to put the game away, but couldn’t do anything. An incomplete pass on first down, a sack on second down, a Falk scramble on third down and the ball was going right back to UCLA with just under three minutes to go.
With UCLA starting at its own 30, rush linebacker Dylan Hanser made the biggest play of the game. Fafaul found Jordan Lasley, on first down, but Hanser tracked him down from behind and forced a fumble, which WSU recovered.
This time, WSU ran it three times, bleeding the clock under a minute before a Kyle Sweet rugby-style punt pinned the Bruins down on their own 2-yard-line. After an incompletion, the Cougar pass rush — which had been virtually non-existent in the second half as UCLA marched up and down the field — pressured Fafaul into throwing the ball up for grabs. Charleston White came down with it for WSU’s fourth turnover of the game, and what had somewhat suddenly become a nail biter was over.
Falk finished just 28-of-48 for just 268 yards, zero touchdowns and two turnovers. On the whole, the WSU offense gained just 358 yards on a horrendous 4.3 yards per play. The latter figure was actually less than UCLA achieved.
Jamal Morrow led the running backs with 51 yards on eight carries, while River Cracraft led the receivers with 74 yards on six catches.
Fafaul finished 24-of-40 for 258 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Darren Andrews finished with eight catches for 116 yards.
The first half was mostly uneventful and marked by sloppiness. The Cougars led just 10-0 at the break, despite the WSU defense completely shutting down UCLA’s offense and providing Falk with field position at the WSU 47, UCLA 42 and WSU 48 on the first three drives.
Between UCLA’s fast, physical defense and the questionable weather, the Cougars found it difficult to move the ball. On those first three drives, WSU could only muster 60 total yards and a field goal — NO REALLY, A MADE FIELD GOAL.
At one point, Falk was 2 for his first 11; later, his completion percentage stood at about 33 percent and his yards per attempt were under 4.0, including the worst interception you’ll ever see him throw ... at the goal line, no less. Falk clearly thought he had a certain coverage, throwing somewhat blindly to Tavares Martin breaking to the end zone. Unfortunately, he never saw the linebacker standing on the goal line who, quite literally, never moved.
But the Cougs finally broke through on the fourth drive, which ironically was the one that required the most work. UCLA’s punter had been a bit of a mess early on — one of his punts traveled minus-1 yards after it spun back like a Jordan Spieth wedge — but after Caleb Fossum let one of his punts bounce, it rolled all the way down to the WSU 9-yard-line.
So, of course WSU would put together an 18-play, 91-yard drive for the first TD of the game, a one-yard plunge by Gerard Wicks. It featured seven first downs, including a crucial 4th-and-3 conversion to Gabe Marks inside the UCLA 10.
Thankfully, UCLA could do absolutely nothing: The Cougs held the Bruins to just 100 total yards and 3.4 yards per play in the first half.
It looked like WSU might have the chance to put UCLA away with a touchdown early in the second half, but the first drive sputtered after just one first down, and the second drive ended on the first play when Falk fumbled the wet ball trying to throw a wide receiver screen, which UCLA recovered at the WSU 25. Three plays later, Fafaul found Andrews for a 22-yard TD just past the outstretched fingertips of Shalom Luani.
But just like the first half, the Cougs were resilient. The ensuing drive was jumpstarted by the best catch you’ll probably see all year, a 21-yarder to River Cracraft:
The last two weeks River Cracraft has had a pair of ridiculous catches. https://t.co/BlVVlSV4vz— Kyle Bonagura (@BonaguraESPN) October 16, 2016
The drive also featured a gorgeous fade to Martin for 24 yards and was finished off a few plays later with Wicks’ second one-yard TD run of the game to extend the lead back out to 10.
After another brief UCLA drive, WSU extended the lead to 17 with yet another rushing touchdown, this time a three-yard run by Jamal Morrow that made it 24-7. The drive was kept alive on a 3rd-and-11 that was converted when Gabe Marks drew a defensive pass interference penalty.
From there, UCLA ratcheted up the drama. But the Cougars had built a big enough lead to keep the Bruins at bay.