TUCSON, Ariz. — B.J. Denker’s final, futile pass sailed too far for his receiver to corral inbounds, and the collective breath held on the Washington State sideline was released, a gust of desert air.
“We started stormin’,” was the way running back Marcus Mason described the euphoria as the Cougars engulfed the turf at Arizona Stadium to salute a 24-17 victory Saturday.
Say this for the Cougars, now 5-5 and a win from bowl eligibility: They don’t seem to know that they have a lot of flaws. These days, they simply play through them.
The most important thing Mike Leach has done in his two seasons on the Palouse is convince the Cougars to have short memories. Or, as Mason’s T-shirt stated, white letters emblazoned on black, “Play The Next Play.‚“
As slogans go, that’s not likely to find a place in the Pac-12 pantheon along with “Fight On” or “Bear Down” but it’s still a fitting one for the Cougars, as they try to shed years of all sorts of baggage and negativity that has enveloped the program.
Limited as they might be, there’s an admirable steeliness with this team now, born of exhausting winter workouts, endless practice reputations and yes, visits to Leach’s infamous sand pit.
Let’s review: The Cougars run the ball so sparingly, it’s cause for celebration when they crack the 100-yard mark, as they did here. They’ve thrown 21 interceptions. In the three previous games, they had allowed an average of 625 yards to appreciative offenses.
Saturday, Mike Bowlin, in a span of six alarming minutes, had a 3-yard punt and hooked two kickoffs out of bounds.
And still, the Cougars pressed through for their third Pac-12 road victory, No. 2 when they were a two-touchdown underdog.
“We aren’t perfect, by any means,” said quarterback Connor Halliday. ”But this is a resilient group that really loves one another and loves playing college football with one another.”
After a win at California, the Cougars went south the rest of October, losing big to Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona State, which Leach called a “murderer’s row.”
With the season slipping away, they came to the desert and did mostly yeoman work against Ka’Deem Carey (26 carries, 132 yards) and Halliday tried to decode ‘Zona’s 3-3-5 defense, which mostly played zone and dropped eight.
“When they’re dropping eight, it’s going to take a little while for people to get open,” said Halliday. “Huge shout outs to the offensive line.”
Halliday, who went 39 for 53 passing, was never better than the winning drive, which began with the game tied at 17 and 6:59 left. He gunned a 10-yard pass to Dom Williams on a third-and-nine post route to the WSU 48. Two plays later, flushed left and seemingly out of options, he slung a ball hard by the sideline that running back Teondray Caldwell somehow controlled as he was teetering out of bounds for a critical 19-yard pickup.
“I didn’t know if he’d be able to see it, because he was kind of blinded by that linebacker,” said Halliday. “It was unbelievable.”
Three plays hence from the 25-yard line, here was Halliday, now scrambling right, finally seeing Floridian Isiah Myers free at the 8, rifling a pass to him, and when Myers ducked safety Will Parks, it was a TD.
There was 2:15 left, too little time for ‘Zona (6-4) to rely on the physical Carey. The Cougars had the Wildcats right where they wanted them, with Denker’s arm having to carry his team.
WSU rushed four, wary of blitzing, and the Cougars went too soft initially. Denker got his team in position, then dodged a sack on fourth down and got out of bounds at the WSU 19.
But on the next-to-last play of the game, the Cougars downed Denker inbounds as the clock ticked inside 15 seconds, and then they blanketed the field in pass defense on his climactic throw, caught out of bounds by Samajie Grant.
“You get in that locker room and everybody‚Äôs happy,” said a beaming Halliday. “These are the things you live for.”
But they don’t happen until you work for them first. At last, the Cougars have gotten that part right.