WSU (1-6 overall, 0-4 Pac-10) trailed 21-7 after its previous drive ended with a 23-yard touchdown from sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel to true freshman wide receiver Marquess Wilson. Simply put, the Cougars had time to overcome a manageable deficit.
It appeared that WSU’s coaching staff made adjustments at halftime to compensate for the Wildcats’ pass rush. Also, the Cougars had possession at their own 41-yard line.
After a successful onside kick to start the game, WSU’s staff elected for trickery to start the fourth quarter on offense. It was a case of one time too many.
Tuel pitched the ball to senior running back James Montgomery, who was supposed to throw it back to the quarterback. But an Arizona defender got deep into the backfield, and Monty instead threw a lateral right into his paws. It was recovered by the Wildcats (5-1, 2-1).
“It was going to be a double pass,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said during a postgame interview. “James went out there and didn’t see the defensive end (Brooks Reed). We thought we had the play based on the route. You gamble a little bit and sometimes you get bit by it.”
Alex Zendejas hit a 40-yard field goal with 11 minutes, 57 seconds left in the game. It was too much to overcome.
To be fair, there is no way of knowing if WSU would have come back without the gaffe. Tuel, who 18 of 32 passes for 257 yards and two interceptions, had a difficult game. He wasn't razor sharp and his receivers didn't help him much either. It happens with young quarterbacks -- Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf and Jason Gesser all had tough games -- and with the exception of an acrobatic 83-yard reception by Wilson midway through the fourth quarter, he didn't have much to choose from.
The Cougars’ offensive line offered Tuel, who was sacked seven times, little protection overall. Perhaps it should be expected from a unit that started true freshman John Fullington and junior-college transfers David Gonzales, who suffered a season-ending broken arm, and Wade Jacobson on the left side. Successful offensive lines start with experience.
And other than some nifty scrambles by Tuel to move the chains, WSU again had no success running the ball. Tuel led the team with 33 yards on 14 carries.
BUT BUOYED BY their best defensive performance of the season, the Cougars still had upset hopes against a ranked for a second consecutive week. And to be fair, the defense bent plenty in the first half, and then bowed up in the second.
True freshman Deone Bucannon finished with a team-high 16 tackles. Redshirt freshman safety Casey Locker intercepted backup quarterback Matt Scott, who replaced the injured Nick Foles, with 11 seconds left in the first half with Arizona at the Cougars’ 19. That held the score at 14-0 heading into halftime.
And then there was Kaufusi, who was active throughout the game playing middle linebacker in place of true freshman C.J. Mizell, who was suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules. Kaufusi had a rough go of it early, but then became a force.
After producing 251 yards of total offense in the first half, the Wildcats finished with just 352.
“Our defense is starting to grow up,” radio color commentator and former WSU coach Jim Walden said after the game.
But the wins won’t come until WSU shows consistency in all aspects of the game and they certainly didn't against the No. 17 team in the country. Special-teams play cost the Cougars 10 points as senior Nico Grasu missed a 40-yard field goal and a fumbled snap by punter Reid Forrest in the third quarter was recovered by Ariz Khyri Knowles at WSU’s 7. One play later, senior running back Nic Grigsby scored to put the Wildcats ahead 21-0.
Despite Wilson’s highlights, the receiving play also was problematic at times. Before Grasu’s missed field goal, wide receiver Daniel Blackledge let a ball fall through his arms in the end zone. The senior has made some big grabs this year, but the missed opportunity was a big one.
“We had some balls that were dropped,” Wulff said. “You can’t do that and win a game.”
Not after a first half where the Cougars were up against one of the nation's better defensive units -- and it was a play the senior needed to make.
WSU produced just 56 yards of total offense in the first half yet trailed only 14-0, as Antolin scored on 9- and 1-yard runs. Meanwhile, Tuel threw a first-quarter interception and another in the final period. Those came with the Cougars at the Wildcats’ 44 and 10. WSU had four turnovers compared to one for Arizona.
“It hurts,” WSU sophomore safety Tyree Toomer said during a postgame radio interview. “It burns. We’re just right there, but we need that extra play to get that win.”
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME: Montgomery's lateral fumble, which was recovered by the Wildcats, came early in the fourth quarter with WSU trailing 21-7.
CATCH OF THE GAME: Wilson had an unprecedented fourth 100-yard game by a WSU freshman on the strength of an 83-yard reception in the fourth quarter that came on a ball that was tipped by cornerback Shaquille Richardson.
HIT OF THE GAME: Kaufusi stuffed Antolin on fourth-and-inches to open the fourth quarter.
STAT OF THE GAME: The Cougars turned the ball over four times compared to one for Arizona.
MISLEADING STAT OF THE GAME: WSU only was penalized four times, but execution, particularly on offense, was not a strong point.
LEADING TACKLERS: Bucannon had a season-high 16 tackles at safety. Kaufusi and fellow linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis each added eight tackles.
NEXT GAME: WSU plays a ranked opponent for a third consecutive week when it faces No. 14 Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif.