BOULDER, Colo. — The Washington State Cougars are playing better football this year. They’re listening better, too.
The Cougars, who spent two weeks listening to coaches harp at practice about the importance of finishing strong after a late-game meltdown at San Diego State, responded with a dramatic, 31-27 triumph at Colorado on Saturday afternoon before a near-capacity crowd of 51,928 at Folsom Field.
Trailing 27-17, Marshall Lobbestael fired touchdown passes to wide-open receivers Isiah Barton and Marquess Wilson in the final 2 1/2 minutes.
Fifteen seconds after Wilson’s go-ahead, 63-yard score against blown coverage with 1:10 left, C.J. Mizell clinched the win when he recovered a fumble forced at midfield by Damante Horton.
“Honestly, it felt like the best win of my life,” cornerback Daniel Simmons said. “It was well deserved.”
“It means the start of a new era of Cougar football,” linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis said. “The old — I’ve got to watch my language — the old days are over.
“This is the new Cougars football squad. This is 2011. This is our year.”
The victory came in the first Pacific-12 Conference game for WSU (3-1) and Colorado (1-4). The Cougars have won three games in a season for the first time in Paul Wulff’s four years as coach.
WSU opened the scoring late in the first quarter when junior running back Carl Winston — making his second college start — scored his first college touchdown.
Colorado led most of the way, however, aided by some questionable officiating calls and 10 penalties for 125 yards (including six personal fouls) against the Cougars.
“We had a lot of things that didn’t go our way,” WSU defensive end Travis Long said. “But you can’t focus on that. You can’t control those things.
“We can control how we play. We did that very well. We came back and kept fighting and fighting.”
Lobbestael, who may return to the sidelines as early as next Saturday if regular starting quarterback Jeff Tuel has recovered from his broken collar bone, set a career high in passing yards for the third straight week. The senior from Oak Harbor completed 32 of 49 passes for 376 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
“He’s a phenomenal quarterback,” Wilson said.
Wilson, who started the day as the national leader with 143 receiving yards per game, was held to 121 yards on six catches after he dropped a “sure” 60-yard touchdown pass midway through the third quarter. Jared Karstetter caught nine balls for 105 yards.
The Cougars topped Colorado (1-4) in total yards, 455-336.
Hoffman-Ellis led all players with 12 solo tackles, 14 total tackles and a career-high two quarterback sacks. Long added a career-high eight tackles, included two for losses, as well as a blocked field goal and a forced fumble.
Senior running back Rodney Stewart gained 132 yards on 26 carries, caught a 34-yard pass and made good plays on special teams.
“We are up 10 with 3 minutes left and we can’t make a play on either side of the ball,” Colorado coach Jon Embree said. “I don’t know what it is.”