By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
Rival Washington State traveled 280 miles to play a home game that had all the makings of a stepping-stone nigh t in Seattle. Instead, local fans of the Cougars watched helplessly as WSU dropped its third consecutive game, lost its star quarterback to another injury and may well have kicked away its chances at potential bowl contention.
A 44-21 loss to lowly Oregon State on the Seattle Seahawks’ home turf Saturday night could prove to be the proverbial straw that broke the Cougars’ backs. With upcoming games against Oregon, at Cal and against Arizona State in the next three weeks, WSU (3-4 overall, 1-3 in the Pacific-12 Conference) has the very real possibility of falling out of bowl contention even before the Apple Cup.
Even worse for fourth-year head coach Paul Wulff, the Cougars’ rebuilding plan seems to have hit a snag.
“We’ve got a good young football team,” he said. “This is a tough league. We’re going to keep fighting.”
While WSU’s promising start to the season already hit speed bumps with back-to-back losses against UCLA and Stanford, the latest defeat brought a whole level of frustration to Cougar Nation. A struggling Oregon State team (2-5, 2-2) looked the part of an offensive juggernaut for almost all of the 60 minutes of Saturday’s game. The Beavers piled up 551 yards and didn’t punt until there were just 90 seconds remaining on the clock.
The only time WSU stopped the Beavers while the game was still in the balance came when cornerback Damante Horton wrestled a sure touchdown reception away from OSU’s Markus Wheaton late in the first quarter. It turned out to be a fleeting ray of hope for a Cougars defense that allowed 300 total yards in the first half alone.
Washington State’s offense provided some semblance of continuity but took a huge hit when quarterback Jeff Tuel went down hard on the second-to-the-last play of the second quarter. After Tuel knelt down to run the final seconds off the clock and hobbled into the locker room, with WSU trailing 24-14, he was replaced by backup Marshall Lobbestael.
The Oak Harbor High School product failed to build on a solid senior season, completing 10 of 20 passes for 105 yards and an interception during his half of action, but the Cougars’ hill had become too steep by that point. Two long OSU scoring drives at the start of the second half put WSU in a 34-14 hole before Lobbestael — aided by two defensive holding penalties — finally got the Cougars into the end zone with 11 minutes remaining.
The Beavers squashed any drama 86 seconds later, when they capped off a seven-play drive that included two third-down conversions with an 18-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Sean Mannion to wide-open fullback Clayton York on a wheel route down the left sideline. That gave OSU a 41-21 lead with 8:34 remaining and effectively put the Cougars away while extending the misery of whatever fans among the announced crowd of 49,219 were wearing crimson.
Wulff said Tuel suffered a left shoulder injury that would be further evaluated in the coming days. He added that the injury appeared to be related to the broken clavicle that kept Tuel out of four games but that the coaches “don’t envision it’s serious.”
In relief, Lobbestael had his moments but finished with a thud. The senior, who had started four of the first five games after Tuel went down with a broken clavicle, hurt a passer efficiency rating that ranked 14th in the nation entering Saturday’s game, especially after throwing his fifth interception of the season with just under three minutes remaining.
That wasn’t Lobbestael’s only off-target throw. The most obvious came on a fourth-and-2 pass from the WSU 25-yard line with 7:41 to play in the game and the Cougars trailing by 20 points. Lobbestael sailed the ball over the head of open receiver Isiah Barton just beyond the first-down marker, ending that drive. He started the next WSU drive by throwing an interception deep down the field.
Lobbestael’s biggest play came when he hit Barton over the middle for a 41-yard reception early in the fourth quarter. That put the ball at the OSU 8-yard line, but the Cougars needed the help of two defensive holding penalties before running back Carl Winston got into the end zone to finish off that drive with WSU’s lone touchdown of the second half and the only one that came with Lobbestael behind center.
In many ways, it seemed like the WSU offense simply couldn’t do enough Saturday night — when the Cougars defense was so helpless against OSU that it seemed like the Beavers piled up enough yardage to make a path all the way back to Pullman.
“We got outplayed tonight,” Wulff said. “I’ve really got to give Oregon State credit. They played the best football game I’ve ever seen them play. They made every play possible out there.
“… I don’t know that we played a bad game. They played a hell of a game.”