All Saturday, I was pretty jazzed up for WSU vs. Oregon. More excited than I've been for a Coug game in which they were obviously overmatched in quite some time. That meant a long time spent in excitement mode waiting for a 10:30 p.m. kickoff.
I'm not sure exactly why I was so excited. Not having time to write thorough statistical previews probably played a part. In the past, digging deep into the numbers would have me stuck on probabilities, and those probabilities would often kill any hope I had for a WSU upset bid. But yesterday was different.
Beyond avoiding the numbers, there was something special about this game being at Martin Stadium. Oregon hadn't tripped to Pullman since 2010--thanks to Bill Moos deciding to play WSU's conference home games in Seattle. This was also the first time the Cougars faced a top team in their shiny, fully-completed digs.
The additions of the massive suite and press box structure and the football operations building seem to have made the place louder. It sounded louder on television and many at the game remarked on Twitter about the noise. It was likely one of the best atmospheres for football game in Pullman ever, and the Cougar football players stepped up their game to match it.
Oregon's first possession did well to ramp up the crowd. Sacking Marcus Mariota, possibly the best player in college football, to force a punt had me up and off my couch, screaming and yelling and scaring my pets. That followed with an easy touchdown drive and the fans in attendance were fully vested in the action.
What transpired after was one of the better games in college football this season. Neither team ever took a two-possession lead at any point. Oregon had a chance multiple times, but the Cougar defense would do just enough to keep them at bay and keep the offense in it.
Sure, the defense let Oregon drive down the field in the fourth quarter to take the lead, but Mariota was in full-on God-mode at that point. How many quarterbacks can get sacked seven times, with just as many near-misses, and play the game he did? Mariota took advantage of every opportunity to scramble and hit every open receiver. Without Mariota playing at his highest level (which he does pretty much every game anyway), the Ducks surely would have left Pullman with a loss.
But let's give it up for WSU's own quarterback. That was Connor Halliday's best game, considering the opponent and circumstances. He's had bigger numbers, but to complete nearly 70 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and no picks (in 63 attempts), against the the No. 2 team in the country, was special.
And Halliday was given the chance to drive WSU down for a tying (or go-ahead with a 2-point conversion) score with about five minutes to play. Not surprisingly, the Cougs were quickly into Duck territory after a huge catch-and-run from Vince Mayle where he got tremendous down-field blocking (the Coug WRs did that so well last night).
Soon WSU was faced with a third-and-long, and a passing interference was not called. The fourth-and-forever that followed ended in a sack that essentially ended the game.
And let's talk for just a moment about that passing interference no-call. There's no disputing that the call was missed, and at first I even saw plenty of Duck fans admit as much on Twitter. But that didn't last long.
WSU fans were understandably pissed, and that compelled Duck fans to come out and explain away any reason why the Cougs were in a position to tie the game late in the first place. The tone switched from, "the refs blew that call, but we'll take it" to "the refs kept WSU in the game anyway."
That was where I took issue. I get the notion that there are plenty of missed calls throughout a game and sometimes they might "even out". But Oregon fans were suddenly decrying the "pick plays" (an interesting choice, since those are rarely called and every team uses them) as the only reason WSU even stood a chance.
You won, Twitter Oregon fans. Just acknowledge that a run to the CFB playoffs is still intact and be happy. Don't be so spoiled by success that you can't enjoy a conference victory on the road. Don't tell me I can't be mad about a call because, by your definition, my team was "lucky" to be in the situation. The Cougars played their asses off and gave your top team a bigger scare than Michigan State. Maybe it was Oregon that was the "lucky" team on Saturday to escape unscathed.
Oh, and about that "luck" thing. For WSU, it comes down to the fact that once again it had an unfortunate play happened at a most inopportune time. After WSU's 0-2 start, Jeff Nusser wrote extensively on the "luck" that played a factor in WSU's success last season and how it has flipped the other direction in 2014. That was certainly on display against Oregon.
Beyond the blown PI call, let's look back to the fumbles. There were three in all--two by the Cougars and one by Oregon.
As has been said many times, fumbles recoveries are a 50-50 proposition. With that, the Cougars would be expected to grab at least one of those three fumbles, but instead Oregon reigned in all three. And all three were in potentially crucial situations.
The first seemed to have been forgotten as the game went along. On Oregon's second offensive possession, WSU blitzed and got home with three different players. Mariota was stripped, and the ball bounced right past a Coug and into the hands of an Oregon offensive lineman. If WSU recovers, it has the ball inside the Oregon 25 poised to go up two scores (the ensuing WSU possession yielded no points).
Fumble No. 2 cost the Cougars excellent field position. For the the second time this season, a blocker struggled with his man and got way too close to the returner leading to a miscue. Instead of WSU with the ball around the Oregon 40 with about 50 seconds left in the first half to score, the Ducks regained possession and ran the clock out.
Finally, likely the most game-turning of fumbles came in the middle of the third. The Cougars were inside the Oregon 40 with the game tied and poised to draw first blood in the second half. Jamal Morrow was stripped from behind on a screen pass, the Ducks recovered for the third-straight time, and answered with a touchdown two minutes later. From that moment, the Cougars were always playing catch-up on offense.
What we now do as Cougs is hope that the "luck" plays will once again swing in WSU's favor. (Does anyone have a stash of magic clovers or rabbit's feet somewhere?) The Cougars will play plenty more close games in the final eight of the season, meaning recovered fumbles and missed calls are going to have an impact on more outcomes.
There are more opportunities for big games to be won, and the Cougs showed last night that they can contend with the best. It's kind of a weird feeling to have for a 1-3 team, but I'm looking forward to next week's game at Utah. I expect I'll feel that same excitement all day again. Fortunately for my sleep schedule, kickoff comes a few hours earlier.