Without a doubt, caring about sports is the stupidest thing I do with my spare time. On an intellectual level, I know that it’s 100% frivolous and full of all sorts of irreconcilable contradictions, but beyond that, it often causes me great distress, which seems like a very silly thing to voluntarily sign up for.
Of course, it also sometimes involves unconquerable joy. That’s pretty great! And every once in a while, you get to see something you’ve never seen before, which is pretty neat, too.
But how often do we get all of that — literally all of it, from excruciating agony to unbridled happiness to “WTF DID I JUST WITNESS??” — wrapped up in one gloriously ridiculous 60-minute package?
The Football Gods were in a playful mood on Saturday, for sure.
Beyond the range of emotions explored in the Washington State Cougars’ dramatic victory over the Oregon State Beavers, the game concluded a narrative arc — which started with the collapse against the UCLA Bruins and carried on with a series of close losses powered by defensive ineptitude, offensive miscues, and plain ol’ bad luck — in such a fashion that Hollywood probably would have rejected it as too trite, too scripted if it had been proposed.
From the very beginning of the game, 2019’s ills were on full display.
- The Cougs drove 56 yards on eight plays on the first drive, only to see Anthony Gordon’s pass at the goal line picked off to end the threat;
- Five plays and 99 yards later, OSU was in the end zone;
- WSU’s next drive ended after just four plays with a fumble by Travell Harris that appeared to be aided by a missed face mask call.
I mean ... really? With a bowl game on the line, on senior day ... this was how it was going to go?
Perhaps the better question:
How it could possibly go any other way for this team?
The roller coaster ride, of course, was just beginning — and it was a perfect microcosm of the season.
The offense was generally pretty great — 641 total yards, 7.7 yards per play — except for when it wasn’t, giving away the ball away an astounding five times. The defense was generally pretty terrible — 601 total yards, 8.2 yards per play — except for when it somehow got even worse, giving up 185 yards (at a mind-blowing 10.5 ypp clip before the final drive) and 29 points in the fourth quarter alone.
Included in there were a series of seemingly back-breaking moments — the kind of “you can’t make this stuff up” moments that have victimized this team all year long.
First, leading 42-32, OSU quarterback Jake Luton threw a pass directly to WSU linebacker Justus Rogers — like, directly to him — with nothing but 40 yards of green grass between the defender and the end zone. And the former Bellevue High School quarterback just ... dropped it.
OF COURSE THIS HAPPENED ON THE VERY NEXT PLAY:
Four plays later, OSU was in the end zone — a 14-point swing.
Then OSU coach Jonathan Smith obviously thought to himself, “I know what I’ll do — I’ll try the kind of onside kick that literally never works, but hey, we’re playing the Cougs and stupid stuff always happens to them, right?” So of course his kicker was able to drill the ball off one of the blockers 10 yards away and of course the ball bounced right back toward his team for the easy recovery.
If that happened in a movie, sports fans would be like “nah, bro — not realistic. That never works.”
That’s how a 42-32 lead turned into a 46-42 deficit without WSU’s best unit having ever touched the ball. And a final turnover deep in the Cougs’ own territory on the first play of the next drive led to a way-too-easy 27-yard touchdown drive for OSU that also included WSU wasting a precious timeout for one of Mike Leach’s famous (and always futile) defensive huddles.
With 4:17 to play, the Cougars trailed 53-42. They’d need two very fast touchdowns with a defensive stop sandwiched in between in order to win. You always hope, but ... c’mon. They’d blown it.
In a twisted way, it seemed poetic that this was how it would end — a team with so much promise injuring itself repeatedly against an inferior opponent while being helped into the abyss by the vagaries of randomness, a final ignominy that would probably keep them from a fifth consecutive bowl.
But then ... a heartbeat?
They got that quick TD on the next drive — seven plays, 75 yards, 2:07 off the game clock — pulling WSU closer after the culprit for the previous turnover, Dezmon Patmon, found his way into the end zone from 14 yards out. But the ensuing onside attempt was unsuccessful, and a WSU defense that had given up TDs on four consecutive drives was being asked not just to get a stop, but to not even give up a first down — even though, to that point, the Cougs had given up more than 10 yards *per play* in the fourth quarter!
Three short running plays later — including no gain on 3rd-and-4 — OSU faced a 4th-and-4 with just 1:14 left on the clock, thanks to WSU being able to stop the clock just twice. Smith, who had experienced so much success with his aggression all season, left his offense on the field with the ball at WSU’s 43 rather than try to pick up some field position.
I think we all would have preferred the punt, if we were being honest because surely this is how it would finally end, with the WSU defense failing yet again to make that one play that would give them victory. After all, they had failed to do it so many times ... really, there was only one way this could go, right?
But then a team that had suffered so much somehow caught a break for what seemed like the first time all season. Luton misfired on his throw to the open receiver, and all that stood between WSU and a victory was a little over one minute and 57 yards — with no timeouts.
It started to happen. First, Gordon found Tay Martin for 13 yards to pick up a 4th-and-8 from OSU’s 43. Later, Gordon found Easop Winston Jr. for 20 yards to convert a 3rd-and-10 and reach the Beavers’ 10-yard line. A couple of plays after that, an OSU defender was forced to tackle an open Brandon Arconado in the end zone before the pass could arrive.
This was it. Ball set up on the two, four seconds remaining, no timeouts. One last play. Oregon State called its own final timeout to make sure its defense was set up the way it wanted — to prevent a pass. After all, the Cougars had run the ball just nine times in 82 plays. This is the Air Raid. Throwing the ball is what they do best. No way they’d have the guts to run it, even against an obvious “light box” ... right?
They couldn’t possibly give it to the guy who said this. Too corny of a script ... right?
WSU RB Max Borghi (@max_borghi) talks like he plays, without much fear.— Alyssa Charlston (@Alyssacharlston) November 17, 2019
He told the punter to go sit on the bench before tonight's game, scored on a play that he and Gordon plotted in their apartment, aaaand guaranteed a bowl game. Then exits. pic.twitter.com/E6ow3U6P4j
Is this real life?
And in true Hollywood fashion, there was one final twist to get your heart rate up one more time.
hell of a way to earn a 15 yard penalty pic.twitter.com/SaDTq5djhg— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) November 24, 2019
OK, maybe this isn’t the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters; after all, this season isn’t ending with some dramatic championship — WSU is still just 6-5, a decided underdog in its rivalry game on Friday, and will probably end up in some low-level bowl game against another mediocre Power 5 foe.
And yet, that particular ending of that particular game feels so very good to me, and had to feel incredible to the guys on the field. Most of their adversity this season was self inflicted, but it was adversity nonetheless, and it threatened to break a historic run of five bowl games for the program. No class wants to be the one to see that end on their watch, particularly after what happened against UCLA, and you can bet those seniors feel a huge sense of relief knowing that’s in their pocket before the Apple Cup.
It will always be a season of what-ifs. But at least they aren’t the what-ifs that come from sitting around and watching everyone else play in the postseason.
For this team, that’s a pretty happy ending, even if Friday doesn’t go their way.
What We Liked: Senior Day done right
I wondered how WSU was going to handle the announcement of the seniors, something that typically has a bit of a celebratory-yet-wistful tone for the players and their families. How would the school — and team — handle the one senior who was so obviously missing?
Turns out, they would handle it about as perfectly as possible.
Instead of announcing each player and their family one at a time coming out of the tunnel, the families lined up at midfield — including Mark and Kym Hilinski. Led by Mike Leach, the seniors came out of the tunnel as a group, all of them making their way over to the Hilinskis. What ensued was the stuff that cracks even the hardest of hearts.
“We do things on behalf of (Tyler), so Hilinski’s Hope, and we go out and we talk to as many schools as we can and do all that, and we think that’s helping,” Mark told Theo Lawson. “But there’s not a lot of Tyler stuff left. His birthday, which is hard, but it’s his. … So this was a specific Tyler thing, it wasn’t just another game, it wasn’t another homecoming or whatever. It was his class, and I think that was sort of the tipping point. But it’s hard because it’s the last of something, too, and we’ve been through a lot of lasts already.”
It also wasn’t lost on everyone that the game played out in a way that was reminiscent of Tyler’s most famous game as at WSU — the improbable comeback against the Boise State Broncos in 2017.
In front of Mark and Kym on their son’s senior day, Gordo — who is the same age as Tyler and came into the program just a year after him — channeled a whole lot of the Comeback Kid out there at the end.
Days like this, games like this, don’t make anything “better.” But I sure am thankful that we Cougs got to show our love to my friends one more time, and let them know just how much they — and their son — mean to us.
Said Jahad Woods: “We won this game for Tyler and his family.”
Who Impressed: Marcus Strong
The secondary has taken a whole lot of deserved heat for its subpar play this season, and on his senior day, Marcus Strong drew one of the toughest assignments the Pac-12 has to offer: OSU receiver Isaiah Hodgins.
Some of you might remember that Hodgins was, briefly, committed to WSU out of high school. He has blossomed into a force; in his first 10 games, Hodgins racked up 73 catches and more than 1,000 yards — representing about 40% of OSU’s total receiving yardage.
Hodgins is 6-foot-4 and 209 pounds. Strong is 5-10 and 185.
And Strong dominated the matchup, as Hodgins caught just five balls for 65 yards. Both were the second-lowest of the year in a game for him, and would have been even worse if he hadn’t made one of the most absurd one-handed catches you’ll ever see with Strong right in his hip pocket. Even with those 34 yards on that one catch, Hodgins could only manage a measly 5.5 yards per target.
Plenty of other receivers found plenty of space to roam — particularly the tight ends — and perhaps that was partly because of attention being paid to Hodgins. But Strong, who also had a big Alamo Bowl last year, certainly held up his end of the bargain, and that’s awesome for him.
Up Next: Oh Dear God
Find yourself a nice, lonely basement with your best alcoholic drink. It doesn’t matter that the Washington Huskies are just 6-5. It doesn’t matter that they just got beat by the Colorado Buffaloes, whom we curb stomped, or that they were beaten by the Stanford Cardinal, whom we also curb stomped.
It. Just. Doesn’t. Matter.
Until it does!
Maybe this is the year!
Now THAT would be a hell of an ending to the story.