There was a lot of hope on our end that the WSU “Speed D” would be able to contain Tate, who has more or less lit the college world on fire since coming onto the scene a few games ago. And there were moments where he and his teammates were contained, but not nearly enough of them — and it got worse as the game went on.
By the end, two big storylines emerged for WSU: The inability of the defense to prevent big plays, and the current mess at quarterback.
After yet another lackluster start to the game from the offense, in which Falk began 13-of-23 for 93 yards, Mike Leach did what he did against Boise State: Benched his record-setting quarterback in the second quarter. And for the second time, the offense found a spark under redshirt sophomore Tyler Hilinski.
Trailing 20-7 with about 2:30 to go in the first half, Hilinski marched the Cougs down the field behind passes of 11, nine, 13, 18, and 21 yards — the last to Kyle Sweet down to the Arizona six. Hilinski scrambled in on the next play into the end zone, and suddenly a game that felt like it was careening out of control was suddenly within a score.
Of course, it didn’t stay that way long; a botched squib kick on the ensuing kickoff put the Wildcats in field goal range with 1 second to play. And of course, the kicker calmly booted a 57-yarder through the uprights.
It was a metaphor for most of the remainder of the game. Although the Cougs did take the lead at 27-23 midway through the third quarter, they spent most of the rest of the night just out of reach of the Wildcats thanks to their offense, which has become one of the best in the nation.
When Alex Grinch took over as WSU’s defensive coordinator, the first move was to eliminate explosive plays. And it’s been a hallmark ever since: Coming into tonight’s game, the Cougs had given up just eight plays of more than 20 yards all season.
Arizona had nine. They racked up 585 yards, turning the Cougs around repeatedly with their option offense for an absurd 11.5 yards per play:
It was a duel the Cougs couldn’t win — not without stellar quarterback play to match Tate, who finished with 421 total yards (275 passing, 146 rushing) and three touchdowns.
Hilinski made plenty of positive plays, completing 45-of-61 for 509 yards and four total touchdowns. And to be frank, WSU wouldn’t have even been in the game without Hilinski doing what he did.
But it was Hilinski’s negative plays that kept WSU from ever truly having a chance to win. He threw four interceptions, two of which combined to deal the death blow.
With just under six minutes to go in the third quarter, the Cougs held Arizona to a three-and-out to get the ball back on their 21-yard-line. Hilinski found Tavares Martin Jr. for 24 yards on the first play, then found Dezmon Patmon down to the Arizona eight-yard-line. But on the next play, he was flushed right, and he committed the ultimate sin: Throwing back across his body, he was picked off in the end zone.
Two plays later, J.J. Taylor carried the ball 79 yards for a TD — he had 152 yards on 13 carries with two TDs. What could have been a 34-30 lead for WSU was a 37-27 deficit in the span of about 30 seconds.
Later, with WSU hanging on by a thread early in the fourth and trailing 44-30, Hilinski threw his fourth interception — a pick six that stretched the lead to 51-30, and the game was effectively over.
Despite that, Hilinski was left to finish the game. He did throw another TD, in which Tay Martin made an incredible move to break loose for 49 yards.
Which begs the question: Is this the last we’ve seen of Luke Falk, who is less than 200 yards away from the Pac-12 career passing record?
It’s going to be a very, very interesting week in Pullman.