Tyler Hilinski found Jamal Morrow in the flat for a 22-yard touchdown in the third overtime as the No. 20 Washington State Cougars pulled off what has to be the most improbable comeback of the Mike Leach era, thundering back from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit with eight minutes left to beat the Boise State Broncos, 47-44, on Saturday night at Martin Stadium in Pullman.
The third overtime started with Broncos quarterback Montell Cozart trying to take a shot to the end zone, but it fell incomplete. A run for no gain and pass for five yards meant Boise would try another field goal — their second of overtime. It was good, meaning a touchdown would win it for WSU.
Hilinski, on in relief of an injured Luke Falk, found Renard Bell on first down for a couple of yards, but it was the next pass that would complete the comeback: Hilinski scanned the field before eventually swinging it to Morrow. Morrow made a man miss and looked to outrun a couple of defenders to the goal line, which he eventually did by leaping over them to secure the victory in dramatic fashion.
Hilinski finished with 240 yards on 25-of-33 passing with three touchdowns and an interception. Bell led WSU with seven catches for 107 yards.
As good as Hilinski was, it really was the defense that powered WSU to victory. The Cougs racked up eight tackles for loss, including four sacks and numerous quarterback pressures. It felt as if Hercules Mata’afa lived in Boise State’s backfield as he led the way with three tackles for loss, including a half sack that forced a fumble that was returned for WSU’s first touchdown of the game. Frankie Luvu had 2.5 sacks, while Peyton Pelluer and Isaac Dotson picked up 14 and 10 tackles, respectively.
You’d expect that a triple overtime game would be crazy, but as it turns out, this was somehow crazier than your typical triple overtime game, if there is such a thing. It was absolutely bonkers that the Cougars even had a chance to win the game.
The Cougars entered the game as double-digit favorites, but just about everything that could go wrong for them went wrong in the first 52 minutes, particularly on offense. Luke Falk suffered through the worst performance of his career — 24-of-34 for 193 yards and an interception — and his night ended midway through the fourth quarter after he was slammed to the turf at the end of a sack in which he fumbled the ball. It was returned by Curtis Weaver for a touchdown to extend the Broncos’ lead to 31-10, and the game felt effectively over with eight minutes to play.
The offense finally scored its first touchdown on the next possession — really, WSU’s first offensive touchdown — when Hilinski (who was making his second appearance of the game) found Jamire Calvin on the end of a wheel route for 17 yards. It was Calvin’s first TD of his career, and the Cougs — still down by two touchdowns — had a faint heartbeat.
The pulse got a lot stronger when the defense came through huge again — with a little assist from Cozart. Brett Rypien was knocked out of the game earlier, and Cozart had done a fine job of powering Boise State to its big lead by using his legs and being smart with his throws.
With under six minutes to play, the Broncos were trying to bleed the clock, but facing a third down, Cozart — a graduate transfer with the experience to know better — tried to make a play, as he had a number of times before in the game. Scrambling to his left, he tried to flip the ball to a receiver, but it was tipped up and into the hands of Peyton Pelluer, who took it to the house to cut the margin to just one touchdown, 31-24.
The Cougs had scored a pair of touchdowns in less than two minutes, and suddenly the unthinkable seemed possible.
Special teams pinned the Broncos back deep, and after a three and out, the Cougs had their chance to come all the way back from that three-touchdown deficit to tie the game — although an illegal fair catch call on the punt return cost the team about 35 yards of field position.
It turned out to be a costly penalty. WSU moved the sticks to midfield, but a sack on Hilinski put the team in too big of a hole, and the Cougs punted with three minutes to go and two timeouts in their pocket.
But then, it was the other team’s turn to finally make a special teams blunder. Erik Powell’s high, short punt hit a Bronco in the back and Dillon Sherman recovered the ball on the Boise State 24 yard line, and suddenly, everything seemed to be on the table again.
Two passes later, WSU was down to BSU’s six yard line after Hilinski found Isaiah Johnson-Mack on the end of a mesh. After an incompletion, Hilinski found Morrow in the flat for the game-tying TD, pending the extra point.
It was good. And the defense needed only to come up with a stop with 1:44 to get the game to overtime.
And come up with the stop, they did. Boise State went backwards on first down after a sack by Nnamdi Oguayo, then went backwards on second down after a hold. Cozart then helped WSU out with an incompletion, then really helped WSU out by scrambling out of bounds. WSU would get the ball back with about a minute to go and a chance to actually win the game in regulation.
For the second consecutive time, though, a botched punt return cost the Cougs massive field position. Morrow misjudged the punt and it sailed over his head. Hilinski got WSU out of the hole with a 17-yard completion to Kyle Sweet. But Boise State sent terror through the audience when a delayed blitz that Hilinski never saw coming resulted in a fumble. The ball sat on the turf for seemingly forever before B.J. Salmonson fell on it to keep from handing the Broncos possession in field goal range — which would have surely resulted in a crushing loss. Instead, the Cougs would punt, Boise State would take a knee, and we headed to overtime.
Boise State got the ball first in overtime, and coach Bryan Harsin decided his best bet was to try and pound the ball. The Broncos ran the ball three times to pick up a first down, but after two more rushes gained only a couple of yards, Hercules Mata’afa forced BSU quarterback Montell Cozart out of the pocket and into an incompletion as he was falling down.
The field goal was good, and it was on the Cougars to answer, down 34-31.
WSU ran a nifty screen to get inside the 10, then James Williams ran the ball down to the 1 on first and goal. But Morrow couldn’t punch it in from there, and rather than try to run again, WSU went to the air. Hilinski placed a perfect back shoulder fade right on the hands of Johnson-Mack, but the sophomore dropped it, and Erik Powell put a field goal through to send the game to a second overtime.
With ball first this time, the drive appeared dead when Morrow got stuffed on third down and a couple to go. But he somehow kept his feet and spun off the defenders to scramble for a first down, and two plays later, Hilinski found Tavares Martin Jr. down to the one yard line. This time, there would be no problems: WSU finally went to Gerard Wicks on a short yardage play and he banged it into the end zone to give WSU a 41-34 lead.
Boise State wasn’t going go quietly, though. Alex Mattison, who had been bottled up for most of the night, got loose for 12 yards. But on the next play, Mata’afa took over again, stopping Mattison in the backfield. With pressure in his face, Cozart was forced to throw the ball out of the back of the end zone on 2nd-and-12, and facing 3rd-and-long — a position in which BSU hadn’t had a lot of success — Marcellus Pippins allowed Cedrick Wilson to get inside leverage and take a slant to the end zone to send us to a third overtime tied at 41.
As the game careened toward its conclusion, it was hard to remember that the first half was absolutely dreadful for both sides. The teams sputtered to a 10-10 stalemate, as WSU’s touchdown came on a fumble return for six by Robert Taylor following a sack by Mata’afa, who spent the majority of the game in Boise State’s backfield.
The defense allowed just 167 yards in the first two quarters and sacked the Broncos three times, including 2.5 from Frankie Luvu, who had just 1.5 career sacks coming into the game. One of Luvu’s sacks was so violent it knocked Brett Rypien from the game.
The majority of those yards came on the first drive, when Boise State marched right down the field for a touchdown, with the big blow a long completion to the tight end after Taylor got sucked in on a play fake. But the defense shut the Broncos down for the remainder of the first half.
Unfortunately, the offense was a mess. Boise State employed many of the same tactics as Montana State did in the opener, only with better athletes, and Falk looked largely paralyzed by it, while the offensive line struggled to create any running lanes for the backs.
It was so bad, that Falk more than doubled his passing yardage just before halftime when he found Bell completely uncovered for a 59-yard completion. The Cougars couldn’t get the ball in the end zone and settled for a field goal to tie it up.
After the WSU offense squandered its first two possessions of the second half, Boise State reclaimed the lead in the third quarter, 17-10, when Cozart scrambled away from pressure and ran in for a touchdown.
It was at this point that Leach did what was heretofore unthinkable: He benched Falk, who was 17-of-27 for 144 yards, for a series — Hilinski’s first appearance of the game. He showed a little promise, hitting a couple of completions to move the chains a couple of times, but an ill-advised scramble resulted in a 20-yard sack, then an ill-advised shovel pass at the end of another scramble resulted in an interception, and the experiment was over. At least, until he was forced back into the game.
Boise State took advantage immediately as Cozart found Wilson behind Pippins for a 47-yard touchdown to make it 24-10, Broncos. Nobody had any inkling of what was about to transpire.