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WSU’s comeback falls short as Central Michigan takes Sun Bowl, 24-21

The Cougs fought hard, but couldn’t quite erase a 21-0 halftime deficit.

EL PASO, TX - DECEMBER 31: Washington State EDGE Brennan Jackson (80) pursues the quarterback during the first half of the 2021 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl matchup between the Central Michigan Chippewas and the Washington State Cougars on New Year’s Eve at Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, TX. Jack Ellis/CougCenter

Facing a 21-0 halftime deficit in the Sun Bowl, the Washington State Cougars nearly pulled off an improbable comeback behind backup quarterback Victor Gabalis, but they could never quite get over the hump and fell to the Central Michigan Chippewas, 24-21, on New Year’s Eve in El Paso, Texas.

The Cougars finish the season 7-6, while Central Michigan finishes 9-4.

The game was as abnormal as the circumstances that led to it; with each team missing key players at important positions because of opt-outs and injuries — and facing opponents for whom they had only been game planning for a few days — there were plenty of mistakes to go around, complemented by some truly bizarre officiating that cut against both teams.

And yet, after a first half that went as poorly as possible — the Cougars gained just 61 yards while being shut out (getting Jayden de Laura injured in the process), and CMU was so confident in their position that they didn’t even try to score on their last possession of the 2nd quarter — WSU still had a chance to win the game in the final minutes after getting the ball back with just a 3-point deficit.

WSU climbed back into it midway through the third quarter with exactly the kind of series of events you need to have a realistic shot at erasing a three-TD deficit.

Gabalis struggled mightily on his first two drives, which totaled minus-9 yards. But he broke out of it with a 55-yard catch and run by Lincoln Victor that took WSU all the way down CMU’s 16-yard line. The Cougs could only pick up 6 yards on their next three plays, and, facing 4th down from the 10 and a 21-0 deficit, WSU made the proper call to push for the TD. Gabalis’ throw was off target, but CMU got nailed for roughing the passer — sending Gabalis to the sideline after he was slow to get up.

With only a pair of freshmen walk-ons left to play QB — Jarrett Guarantano didn’t travel, and WSU’s other scholarship QB, Xavier Ward, didn’t dress — wide receiver Travell Harris lined up in the backfield. He kept it and scampered into the end zone to cut the deficit to 21-7.

On the ensuing drive, the Chippewas finally made their first big mistake: On the first play, quarterback Daniel Richardson flipped a pass toward his tight end, but linebacker Travion Brown snatched it away, and WSU was suddenly in business with a short field at the CMU 23.

Nakia Watson picked up 13 yards on second down to reach the CMU 5, but a trio of incomplete passes left the Cougs with 4th and goal. This time, Gabalis didn’t misfire: The wet ball wobbled out of his hand, but it had enough on it to get to De’Zhaun Stribling, who had beaten his man badly on a slant. Suddenly, the Cougars had scored a pair of TDs in less than two minutes and it was 21-14 with 2:24 to play in the third quarter.

The only points the Chippewas could muster in the second half came directly as a result of poor officiating that went against the Cougs this time. Facing 4th-and-1 from their own 32 with 10:37 to play, WSU coach Jake Dickert elected to remain aggressive and go for it. Watson appeared to tumble well past the line to gain on the hand off, but the official marked Watson well short. Even video evidence which showed Watson gained a first down wasn’t enough to overturn the call, and after CMU gained eight yards in three plays, Marshall Meeder kicked his third field goal of the game to make the margin 10.

After trading possessions, WSU needed a quick score down 10 with 4:52 to play — and they got it. First, Gabalis found Donovan Ollie down the sideline with a gorgeous rainbow for 56 yards. A fortuitous (and perhaps dubious) pass interference penalty on CMU three plays later kept the drive alive, and Gabalis found Victor on the next play for his second TD of the game on a beautiful 13-yard wheel route that was sprung by a great rub from Stribling.

Needing a 3-and-out to have a shot, WSU got just that, with the Cougars burning all their timeouts to preserve as much time as possible for their inexperienced QB. Improbably, the Cougs — long since given up for dead by most fans — had a chance to tie or win the game in regulation, taking over on their own 14-yard line with 2:41 to play.

The hope was short lived. After gaining 5 yards on first down, the next two passes were off target. Needing another 4th down conversion, slot receiver Joey Hobert ran his route just to the sticks, but Gabalis’ throw took him back upfield just a bit and the completion was a half-yard short, ending the Cougars’ comeback.

Quick Thoughts

DESERVED ENDING: No, I’m not talking about the final score. The result was a bummer, but the performance was everything we’ve come to love about this team. Facing a tough situation — a situation in which they easily could have folded — they did not. Even when it seemed they were toast (and through the first 38 minutes of the game, they very much looked like they were toast), the Cougars reached down for the kind of resilience that not many teams display, fighting back in a way that not many teams could. Even with so many players missing, they refused to give up. Nobody likes to lose, but the Cougars can be so proud of their performance in this game.

DOMINANT DEFENSE: Giving up 24 points doesn’t scream dominance, but when all was said and done, WSU’s defense allowed just 315 yards and 4.4 yards per play. CMU’s stud running back Lew Nichols III (that guy will be playing on Sundays, wow) gained 120 yards, but it took him 28 carries to get there, and he gained just 4.3 yards per carry — he gained 5.5 on the season overall. The Chippewas’ two touchdown drives covered just 32 yards total, one set up by a kickoff fumble and the other by a long punt return, and one of the field goals game after a failed conversion by WSU on its own side of the 50. It was as hell of a performance, and it allowed the Cougs’ offense time to come around. The best part is that most everyone is back, and it’s not hard to imagine a world in which the defense is a real strength next season.

NOT QUITE READY FOR O-LINE PRIMETIME: I said before the game that I was curious to see how Watson performed behind the rebuilt line, because there is a chance that those six guys are in the same spots for the season opener next fall. It didn’t go great! Jarrett Kingston seemed to do OK replacing Liam Ryan at right tackle, but Christian Hilborn was out of his depth replacing Abe Lucas to such a degree that it was stunning WSU even ran him out there in the first place. I’m not here to roast the kid — as a true freshman, he was put in a tough spot — but it’s not exaggerating to say he struggled to get much of a hand on anyone, with pass rushers continually blowing past him.

WSU eventually adjusted, moving starting right guard Ma’ake Fifita out to right tackle and then bringing another freshman, Brock Dieu, to take his place. It brought a ton of stability to the pass protection, even as they were sort of making it up as they went — the two flip-flopped on some running plays, presumably so Fifita could run the plays he’d been practicing. Hilborn did play more snaps in the second half, probably on plays where they thought he could be successful and get more experience, but his performance brings big questions heading into next season if they thought he was the guy who’d be taking over out there. Here’s to guessing Dickert is going to hit the portal hard for another lineman (or two).

Did you see that?

Watch the route combo at the top. Pretty.

Did you see that? (part 2)

Man, Aussies just built different.


Game Stats