It hardly looked promising when WSU took over at its own 10-yard line with just 2:03 minutes left and down three points. But senior quarterback Marshall Lobbestael found Jared Karstetter on third down. Two plays later, Lobbestael eluded pressure and found sophomore Marquess Wilson open over the middle for a 63-yard go-ahead touchdown.
“I just ran a pump fake on him and took it vertical,” Wilson said in a postgame television interview.
WSU (3-1 overall, 1-0 conference) then sealed its 500th victory in program history when sophomore cornerback Damante Horton stripped wide receiver Paul Richardson on a 24-yard gain. The fumble was recovered by sophomore linebacker C.J. Mizell.
“It was crazy,” said true freshman defensive end Logan Mayes, who played in his first game as a collegian. “We had so much adversity thrown at us. But we got the win and that’s what’s important.”
That marked the second straight possession where the Cougars made a stop. An incomplete pass by quarterback Tyler Hansen resulted in a punt before Lobbestael’s touchdown pass.
“The defense did a great job forcing the punt,” Lobbestael said. “Without that, we don’t win.”
After its fourth-quarter meltdown Sept. 17 in a 42-24 loss at San Diego State, several scribes opined that this was a must-win game if the Cougars had bowl aspirations -- and perhaps to keep coach Paul Wulff’s name off the various media "hot seat" lists.
After all, the Buffaloes (1-4, 0-1) have a first-year coach in Jon Embree and have installed little of their new West Coast offense. But without a victory against CU, WSU, some argue, might be challenged to reach six wins needed for bowl eligibility.
That is why this win -- even as sloppy as it was at times -- cannot be overstated.
“I think it means a lot,” Wulff said in a postgame radio interview. “These kids believe. Whatever challenges I’ve put in front of this group, they’ve embraced it. They seized the moment.”
WSU senior linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis agreed.
“This is a game we couldn’t lose,” he said.
BUT A LOSS APPEARED a strong possibility for much of the afternoon, particularly when Rodney Stewart scored on a 1-yard run to increase CU’s lead to 27-17 with just 5:11 remaining in the game.
Lobbestael, who completed 32 of 49 passes for 376 yards and three touchdowns, showed the poise of a fifth-year player on the ensuing drive as he guided the Cougars downfield before finding wide receiver Isiah Barton on a bullet 19-yard touchdown strike with 2:35 left.
At the time, it felt like it might have been a series too late.
After Lobbestael found Jared Byers for an 11-yard touchdown late in the third quarter to match an earlier scoring pass from Hansen earlier in the period, WSU trailed 20-17 and seemed to be building momentum.
Linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis later sacked Hansen on the first down to open the fourth quarter and the Buffaloes were unable to move the ball on that possession. The Cougars had possession at their own 38, but could not advance.
“I never thought we really got into rhythm on offense or defense,” Wulff said.
WSU does not have any bye weeks left, which might be good news if the first half is any indication. After one promising 15-play series that culminated with a 2-yard touchdown run by junior running back Carl Winston with 3:57 left in the first quarter, not much went right for the Cougars for a long stretch.
It almost felt like a flashback to when Wulff played for Dennis Erickson at WSU in the late 1980s. The Cougars were penalized seven times for 90 yards during the first half, including three times on personal fouls, though two of them drew cries of protest from the WSU bench and Cougar fans online. Those penalty yards helped the Buffaloes take a 13-10 lead into halftime despite producing only 122 yards of total offense.
The ugliest sequence came during WSU’s first drive of the second quarter. After a 9-yard run by senior Logwone Mitz, the Cougars twice needed just a yard for a first down at CU’s 40-yard line. But on both occasions, WSU ran wide. out of the shotgun.
It didn't work.
That was magnified on the ensuing possession when a pair of personal fouls helped take the Buffaloes down to WSU’s 17. Three plays later, quarterback Tyler Hansen down Paul Richardson for a 9-yard touchdown that gave CU a 10-7 lead.
CU appeared poised to extend the lead on its next possession, but sophomore safety Deone Bucannon ended an eight-play drive with an interception. Buoyed by a personal foul call against the Buffaloes, the Cougars drove down to the Colorado 11 yard line, but had to settle for a 28-yard field goal by sophomore Andrew Furney with 21 seconds remaining in the first half.
But WSU’s kickoff team -- arguably its biggest strength last season -- was a liability. Angling to prevent a long return, Furney squib kicked the ball but without much heat on it. Evan Harrington still managed to return the ball to the 48 yard-line.
After a 21-yard pass play, CU had just enough time for Will Oliver to connect on a 48-yard field goal. It was his third successful try on four attempts -- his first was blocked by defensive end Travis Long on the Buffaloes’ opening drive of the game.
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME: Sophomore wide receiver Marquess Wilson caught a 63-yard touchdown pass over the middle for the game-winning score.
CATCH OF THE GAME: Wilson takes that honor, but might not have been possible without senior Jared Karstetter converting on third down two plays earlier.
STAT OF THE GAME: WSU was statistically dominant in several categories, but was hampered by its 10 penalties for 125 yards.
MISLEADING STAT OF THE GAME: Colorado had possession for 32:12 minutes, but it can't be said they won the battle against the Cougars' defense. WSU outgained the Buffaloes 459-336.
LEADING TACKLERS: Senior linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis had 14 tackles. Junior defensive end Travis Long had eight tackles, while sophomore safety Casey Locker added seven stops.
NEXT GAME: The Cougars play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at UCLA (TV: Root Sports).