THE STATISTICAL SIMILARITIES, nearly identical, between Washington State legend Drew Bledsoe and Jeff Tuel through seven starts during their sophomore seasons were displayed on TV during the first half. It just did did not show until the fourth quarter, when Tuel threw three touchdown passes.
But by then it was too late to notch the upset win as the Cougars lost 38-28 on Saturday at No. 12 Stanford in Pac-10 play. Tuel completed 21 of 29 passes for 297 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
For a second consecutive week, WSU (1-7 overall, 0-5 conference) was far too careless with the football.
On two of the Cougars’ first three possessions, twice on their first 10 plays on offense, they turned the ball over. It began when Tuel was hit as he released the ball and was intercepted by linebacker Owen Marecic. It was the third play of the game, giving the Cardinal (6-1, 3-1) possession at WSU’s 7-yard line.
It was one of the few times the Cougars contained Stanford’s offense during the first half, though. WSU forced a field goal, and Nate Whitaker converted on a 20-yard field goal to give the Cardinal a 3-0 lead.
Stanford did not need any assistance on its next possession as it drove 80 yards on 13 plays to take a 10-0 lead when quarterback Andrew Luck found wide receiver Ryan Whalen wide open for a 7-yard touchdown.
The Cougars followed with another turnover on a fumble by junior running back Logwone Mitz. But they responded with a takeaway of their own when senior defensive end Kevin Kooyman intercepted Luck. WSU took advantage of the momentum as Tuel capped a eight-play possession with a 12-yard pass to junior wide receiver Jared Karstetter to cut its deficit to 10-7.
It would not last.
The Cardinal continued to use Luck’s precision passing and running back Stepfan Taylor’s legs to move the ball against the Cougars’ defense. Taylor, who ended with 145 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, scored on 6- and 1-yard runs in the second quarter to put Stanford ahead 24-7.
“They ran it right down the heart of our defense,” Wulff said during a halftime radio interview. “If you don’t stop the run, it’s hard to win.”
WULFF SAID THERE were three significant factors for WSU: time of possession, preventing third-down conversion and avoiding turnovers. The Cougars were not successful in any of those categories. Stanford’s veteran-laden offensive line opened plenty of holes to help Taylor reach 100 rushing yards for a fourth consecutive game. The Cardinal also converted 6 of 14 third downs but that stat didn't tell the whole story -- Stanford also went 3-for-3 on fourth down conversions, most of them short yardage situations.
Stanford accumulated 439 yards of total offense on the day, to WSU's 388.
“They ran it right down the heart of our defense,” Wulff said at halftime. “If you don’t stop the run, it’s hard to win.”
As for the turnovers?
WSU was fortunate to only finish with three turnovers. Senior running back James Montgomery fumbled twice, but neither ball was lost. His second came after the Cougars’ defense had held Stanford to a rare three-and-out. It did not matter as Tuel was intercepted two plays after driving down to the Cardinal 32. Both teams punted three times in the game.
Luck extended Stanford’s lead to 31-7 with 2 minutes, 56 seconds left in the third quarter when he found Doug Baldwin for a 17-yard touchdown.
Tuel found senior running back Marcus Richmond for an 18-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. After Luck, who completed 20 of 28 passes for 137 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, connected with Coby Fleenor to give the Cardinal a 38-14 advantage with 6:11 left, Tuel got busy.
A six-play drive culminated with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Tuel to Jared Karstetter, who had 101 yards and two touchdowns on nine receptions. And with just 35 seconds left, Tuel found true freshman Marquess Wilson open for a 74-yard touchdown. Wilson finished with 150 yards on six receptions.
“I know he’s going to beat the guy over the top nine times out of 10,” Tuel said during a postgame radio interview. “If I get the time and can lay it out, the feeling is pretty good.”
It might get even better now that WSU is finished with a stretch of three ranked opponents in successive weeks, and five ranked opponents in their first eight games.
The schedule might present the team’s best opportunity for a win over the next two games, and an argument can be made for each of the season's final four games. The Cougars play Saturday at Arizona State, which lost 50-17 today at California. They then face the Golden Bears on Nov. 6 at Martin Stadium. California is 0-3 on the road this year and has been outscored 110-54. WSU then follows up with tilts against Oregon State and Washington.
“We’re three, four or five plays away from winning ballgames,” Wulff said during a postgame radio interview. “I’m very proud of the way we’ve fought.”
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME: Stanford had just 2 minutes, 48 seconds left in the first half to drive 80 yards. But four of the Cardinal's five plays -- including a 15-yard pass-interference call -- went for at least 13 yards. On the ensuing play, Taylor scored on a 1-yard run to give Stanford a 24-7 halftime lead.
CATCH OF THE GAME:Wilson outraced defenders for a 74-yard touchdown reception, scoring with 35 seconds left in the game.
STAT OF THE GAME: Tuel passed for 298 yards and the chemistry between him and his receivers appears to improve each week.
MISLEADING STAT OF THE GAME: WSU averaged 3.9 rushing yards per carry, but that includes a 26-yard run by sophomore Carl Winston and a 22-yard carry by Montgomery. The running game was almost nonexistent during the first half.
LEADING TACKLERS: True freshman safety Deone Bucannon led the Cougars in tackles for a second consecutive week with 15. Junior linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis added seven.
NEXT GAME: WSU plays at Arizona State, which lost 50-17 today at Cal, at 4 p.m. Saturday.