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WSU loses a heartbreaker to USC, 39-36

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The Cougs had a chance to tie the game in the final two minutes, but Blake Mazza’s field goal was blocked.

Washington State v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Washington State Cougars’ bid to beat the USC Trojans for the second consecutive year and move to 4-0 was torpedoed by a pair of special teams mistakes as the Cougs lost a heartbreaker, 39-36.

WSU’s defense was largely absent, particularly in the second half, as USC came back from a 13-point deficit early in the second half to hold a three-point lead late in the game, but the Cougs did come up with a stop with just under six minutes to play to give the offense one more chance to tie or take the lead one more time.

Gardner Minshew II, who threw for 344 yards and 3 TDs on the evening, found Jamire Calvin for 25 yards early in the drive to move into USC territory. Following a seven-yard rush by James Williams, Minshew went to Williams again, this time for an incredible 14-yard reception that looked like it might have hit the ground, but because it was called a catch, stood up to review.

On the next play — an incomplete pass — this happened:

Williams then rushed for four yards on 2nd and 10 from the USC 25-yard-line, and then on 3rd-and-6 — trailing by 3 — the team that carries the flag for the purest form of the Air Raid settled on one of the more puzzling play calls you’ll ever see: A run. (Maybe because Minshew had just taken a missile to his brain?) It went for no gain, and Blake Mazza trotted on the field to try and tie it with 1:41 to play.

It’s worth noting that WSU was only in this position because of a botched extra point; had the Cougs converted that, it very likely would have been tied at 38 at that point. But it wasn’t, not after WSU also tried (and failed at) a two-pointer, and USC also tried (and succeeded on) a two-pointer.

Past ended up as prologue: Left guard Christian Haangana fell down in protection, Jay Tufele busted through the line untouched, the kick was blocked, and the game was effectively over — with just one WSU timeout remaining, the three rushes for a first down after that seemed to be mere formality. (Pay no attention to the blatant hold by USC No. 73 that helps to open the hole.)

It was a complete gut punch for a team that outgained the Trojans by a margin of 435-354, but that doesn’t tell the entire story — the Cougs also gave up 118 yards in penalties, much if it by defensive backs who were repeatedly abused by USC’s receivers and left with no recourse but to commit a foul ... or give up a big play.

Easop Winston Jr. led the team with 143 yards and two TDs, while Williams picked up 54 yards on the ground and another 34 through the air on seven receptions.

The game started out inauspiciously as USC ran the ball five consecutive times on the first drive of the game, right into the end zone. It was the sort of drive that had you going, “uh, maybe this small-ish defensive line actually is going to be a problem,” as USC met almost no resistance, repeatedly gashing the Cougs.

It was a struggle early on offense, too — WSU’s first two drives covered just 22 yards, although they did get three points out of the second one (thanks to some fabulous field position) on a long Blake Mazza field goal.

But both sides of the ball quickly figured it out; USC’s second and third drives covered just 19 yards, while the Cougs took the lead on their third drive with a 59-yard, 14-play effort that ended with 4-yard touchdown run by James Williams.

USC struck again quickly, finding the end zone after just three plays and one minute — with the assist of a couple of WSU penalties — giving the Trojans a 14-10 lead. In fact, USC’s best offense (outside of the opening drive) was throw it up and hope for a penalty. It worked enough to make it viable, as WSU’s secondary was shaky at times.

The good news for WSU is that none of that had anything to do with Minshew, who was on fire after the first two drives. The Cougs retook the lead when Minshew threw into the teeth of the blitz to hit Easop Winston Jr. — who had beaten his man in single coverage — in stride for a 28-yard touchdown as he took a big hit from a free runner. Following a USC punt, Minshew led another TD drive, this time finding Dezmon Patmon — who also had abused his man in single coverage — for a seven-yard TD.

In all, Minshew was 22-of-31 for 179 yards with two TDs and zero interceptions. He spent a lot of time carving up the left side of the USC defense:

At that point, it was 24-14, but of course, no game would be complete without giving up dumb points before the half. With just 1:31 to play before the break, USC marched down the field to get into field goal range. WSU looked to have put the threat to bed after a sack took USC back to 4th-and-18 — and out of field goal range — but “throw it up and hope for PI” succeeded again to give the Trojans new life. USC took a few shots at the end zone, with the closest call coming in the final seconds. Michael Pittman Jr. was just barely out of bounds with 2 seconds remaining, and the Trojans settled for three points.

That was unfortunate for them, because the Cougs got the ball to start the second half. Less than five minutes later, WSU was in the end zone again — for the fourth consecutive drive — thanks to Max Borghi trucking a couple of dudes on his 13-yard journey to paydirt. It was 30-17 after a botched extra point.

It didn’t take USC long to answer, as Pittman stepped through a weak tackle attempt by Sean Harper Jr. on a short pass completeion to make a 50-yard house call — 30-24, Cougs.

Things slowed down quite a bit after that, however, as the teams traded punts on the next three drives.

USC made the first move to break the stalemate when JT Daniels dropped the football in Amon-Ra St. Brown’s bucket from 30 yards out. It was a beautiful pass into some pretty poor coverage from Marcus Strong, who had a rough day. And instead of a tie game, the Cougs were down 31-30 thanks to the botched extra point.

That woke WSU back up. The very first play, USC brought pressure. With a man in his place, Minshew again found Winston singled up, hitting him for a 59-yard gain. Six plays later, Minshew did it again, scrambling to his left, avoiding rushers and buying time, before finding Winston — who had come all the way across the field — in the corner of the end zone. The two-point attempt failed, and WSU was back in front, 36-31, with 10:15 to play.

The lead was short lived. Five plays and 56 yards later, Vavae Malepeai waltzed into the end zone from two yards out. Daniels then found Vaughns for the two pointer in the back of the end zone, throwing the ball past about seven WSU defenders who somehow couldn’t get a hand on it to make it 39-36.

The Cougs couldn’t answer back after Minshew underthrew a wide open Renard Bell who would have jogged in for a long TD on third down, but after a monster punt by Oscar Draguicevich flipped the field, suddenly conservative USC ran it twice to leave 3rd and 5. Tracy Claeys dialed up one more blitz, and a hurried Daniels couldn’t hook up with St. Brown. WSU got the ball back on its own 26 with 5:39 to play and the game in the balance. But if you’ve made it this far, you already know how it ends.