For the second consecutive year, just a win in the Apple Cup by the Washington State Cougars will put them in the Pac-12 Championship Game after they moved into a tie for first place in the North Division with a 33-25 win over the Utah Utes on Saturday.
The Cougars are tied with the Stanford Cardinal — who are fresh off a whipping of the Washington Huskies — at 6-2 in the conference, but they hold the tiebreaker by virtue of their head-to-head victory last week. Same as last year, if the Cougs can beat the Huskies, they’ll be heading to Santa Clara, California, to play for their first conference championship since 2002.
As it has been so often this year, this game was really about the WSU defense. The Cougs forced seven turnovers — no, that’s not a typo — the last two of which were necessary to secure the victory.
Despite the fact that the game shouldn’t have been remotely close, Utah got the ball back with three minutes remaining and was driving down the field in search of a touchdown that could have tied the game with a two-point conversion. But Nnamdi Oguayo tipped the ball up in the air just beyond the line of scrimmage and Chima Onyeukwu came down with it. With 58 seconds remaining, the game appeared over.
Unfortunately, the offense couldn’t capitalize — one of the big stories of the day — and the Utes got the ball back with 33 seconds left on their own 10-yard line. Utah QB Tyler Huntley scrambled away from a sack for a 32-yard gain, and Utah had one more shot at the end zone with seven seconds to play.
An interception in the end zone of the Hail Mary by Jalen Thompson — WSU’s third interception of the game — finally killed off the Utes.
Hercules Mata’afa was the individual star of the game: Eight total tackles, five of them for loss with three sacks and one forced fumble. He was legitimately unblockable for most of the night, and might have sewn up the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award with that performance.
The entire WSU defense came to play from the jump, forcing three turnovers on the Utes’ second, third and fourth possessions — each in Utah territory. The first was a fumble on a chase down from behind, but the others were the result of pressure from WSU’s defensive front: Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley — being chased out of the pocket — made an ill-advised throw across his body that was picked off by Robert Taylor, then Mata’afa strip-sacked Huntley and recovered the ball himself.
The offense was only able to turn it into 13 points, though, and the theme of the night was set: The defense would take it away, and the offense would do very little with it.
The total of 33 points looks pretty good until you consider the Cougs started in Utah territory five times and started on their own 49 two other times. WSU averaged just 3.9 yards per play — easily the lowest mark of the season, and the worst since Stanford held the Cougs to 3.3 yards per play in 2014.
Luke Falk did set the Pac-12 career touchdown record, but after last week’s nice performance against the Cardinal, Mediocre Luke returned: 40-of-69 for 311 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Thanks to the defense — and Erik Powell, who hit 4-of-5 field goals, suffering his only miss on a bad hold — it was good enough.
The Apple Cup, and maybe a Pac-12 Championship Game appearance, awaits.