The Washington State Cougars blew a three-touchdown halftime lead to suffer a stunning second-half collapse to end this bizarre roller coaster of a 2020 season with a bizarre 45-28 loss to the Utah Utes in Salt Lake City.
The Cougs gave up 38 unanswered points in the second half to end the season 1-3, while Utah finishes 3-2. Neither team is heading to a bowl game.
It’s hard to fully comprehend how it happened, but it happened as these sorts of things usually do: Slowly, then suddenly.
WSU held a 28-7 halftime lead behind their best two quarters of football of this weird season; the defense was generating turnovers and stifling the Utes ground game, and the offense was moving with purpose, both on the ground and in the air.
But he second half ...
The third quarter was pretty darn unkind to the Cougs in their first two games, and that returned in this one. The Utes went nowhere on their first drive after the break, but they found something after that. The Cougar defense had been flying around and making plays all over the field with tremendous aggression, and Utah finally started to use that against them, using lots of counter action to stretch the field horizontally.
While the WSU offense proved unable to get even a single first down, the Utes put together a pair of long touchdown drives — nine plays, 81 yards, and eight plays, 68 yards — to close the gap to 28-21. It was total domination in the third quarter: 14 points to zero, 149 yards to 10.
Still, the Cougars held the lead heading into the 4th if they could just get something going. But, time and again, they were their own worst enemy, as the mistakes that plagued the Utes in the first half somehow came around to WSU in the second half.
With the game tied at 28 following a 33-yard Ty Jordan touchdown run — on 4th and 1, no less — WSU and Utah traded punts, and the Cougs still had a chance to make something happen, even as everything had gone against them up until that point.
The running game had been completely bottled up (along with everything else), but Max Borghi finally found some room from WSU’s own 7 off the left hand side, bursting forward for 13 yards — and seemingly some breathing room. That’s when Vonte Davis’ helmet met the ball, Borghi fumbled, and Utah recovered and returned it to the WSU 13.
Two plays later, Jordan made about seven defenders on his way to an 11-yard TD run that put Utah up 35-28.
Still ... it was only a one-score game, and Travell Harris took the return + a late hit all the way to the Utah 42.
But on the very next play, Abe Lucas got whipped on a swim move — seriously, that’s how weird this game was, when does that happen? — and Jayden de Laura never saw the defender before being stripped on his windup. Utah, naturally, recovered.
HOWEVER! The defense forced a three-and-out with about five minutes to go to give the offense another shot.
Except ... Joey Hobert came hard after the punt, was in great position to block it, and somehow jumped into the punter instead of over the ball and the ensuing roughing the kicker penalty gave the Utes a new set of downs. Three plays later, a field goal made it a two-score game, 38-28.
Desperation set in with 2:37 to play in the game, and it went about as poorly as it could. Incomplete, incomplete, incomplete, delay of game ... pick six — 45-28.
Cammon Cooper got some extended run at quarterback after that, perhaps to get him some reps, perhaps to get him some playing time in his home state, and he did take the Cougs on a nice drive down to the Utah 9-yard line. But Harris was stripped fighting for yards, and fumble luck once again forsook WSU, and with just 10 seconds remaining, it was (mercifully) over.
If I hadn’t watched this happen, I’m not sure I’d believe it was poss ... just kidding, I’d totally believe it after what I’ve seen in my life as a Coug, but it makes for a good line. It’s still staggering, though:
After all that happened, it can be tough to remember just how good the first half was. Let’s try and do that.
It was a mistake-filled start for both teams, but the Cougs were the first to break through. Utah’s second drive ended on its first play when Ty Jordan put the ball on the ground — thanks to a strip by Justus Rogers — and Hunter Escorcia pounced on the loose ball at the WSU 43. De Laura finally started to find some space to work with passes underneath, spreading the ball around to three different receivers for intermediate gains to set up first and goal from the Utah 8.
From there, we were reminded why Max Borghi is so special.
.@max_borghi scores his 20th career rushing TD, 5th-most in WSU history!— Washington State Football (@WSUCougarFB) December 19, 2020
WATCH | @FS1#GoCougs | #LetsRoll pic.twitter.com/JSTC6cjMA8
The Cougs continued to hold the Utes down, forcing consecutive punts, before putting the ball in the end zone once again. The drive began deep in WSU territory and looked like it might be headed for a three-and-out. But a brilliant play call of a draw + the talent of Borghi put that notion to rest:
.@max_borghi coming at ya for 37 yards!— Washington State Football (@WSUCougarFB) December 19, 2020
WATCH | @FS1#GoCougs | #LetsRoll pic.twitter.com/tBvy3XCI9N
The next play was a 21-yarder from de Laura to Travell Harris, and the Cougs were cooking. Seventeen more yards to Harris two plays later took it down to the Utah 11, and Deon McIntosh took it from there. Check out the block from center Brian Greene:
.@deon_the_truth scores his 3rd rushing TD of the season!— Washington State Football (@WSUCougarFB) December 19, 2020
WATCH | @FS1 #GoCougs | #LetsRoll pic.twitter.com/anxT5Xqgqz
The defense continued to make big play after big play. Hello, Jaylen Watson:
Gimme that! @JaylenWatson12 #GoCougs | #LetsRoll pic.twitter.com/beHLSpi3tA— Washington State Football (@WSUCougarFB) December 19, 2020
It didn’t lead to any points, and it felt like a missed opportunity when some disastrous defense reared its head on the next drive — this is about as badly as you can defend a wheel route:
Oh just a 91 yard (!) touchdown pass from Jake Bentley to Britain Covey. The second longest touchdown pass in school history!— Utah Athletics (@utahathletics) December 19, 2020
Watch live: FS1#GoUtes pic.twitter.com/yXeLN8iaSN
It felt like maybe Utah was ready to make it a game after the Cougs had more or less dominated. But then WSU answered with as good of a sequence as you’ll generally ever see.
First, the Cougs came right back with what will be known as the Jamire Calvin drive: Deep pass to Calvin (49 yards), intermediate pass to Calvin (14 yards), sprint out pass to the goal line for a TD to Calvin. Touchdown answered. But that wasn’t all. Two plays into Utah’s next drive, Jake Bentley made one of the more puzzling throws you’ll ever see, hitting a dropping Jahad Woods right in the hands, which Woods returned to the 3-yard line. On the very next play, de Laura kept it on the option to waltz into the end zone.
Woods, it should be noted, was a man possessed in the first half, making five tackles. He was everywhere.
What felt like a potentially wobbly 14-7 lead was suddenly 28-7 in what seemed like a blink:
Pretty good sequence by the Cougs!@Jcalv6 | @JW13__ | @jayden_delaura— Washington State Football (@WSUCougarFB) December 19, 2020
WATCH | @FS1 #GoCougs | #LetsRoll pic.twitter.com/YCoaEUiE47
Ah, good times. Let’s try to focus on those!