PALO ALTO, Calif. — The struggling young Washington State Cougars took 19th-ranked Stanford down to the final play of Saturday's Pac-12 Conference game before succumbing, 24-17.
"I'm really proud of our kids for how they played," WSU coach Mike Leach.
"We can play with anybody if we play that kind of ball," quarterback Jeff Tuel said.
More precisely, the Cougars can play with anybody when Tuel completes a school-record 43 passes for a career-high 401 yards, and WSU's defense allows season lows of 136 passing yards and 256 total yards.
"The defense played a heck of a game," said Tuel, a senior making his first start since suffering a knee injury in the second game of the season.
"That bye helped us a lot (on defense)," linebacker Justin Sagote said. "We were pretty prepared for what was coming."
The Cougars overcame another abysmal rushing performance (minus-16 total yards) to outgain Stanford 385-256 in total yards. Tuel set a career high with 60 pass attempts, and he took a terrible beating before the game ended when he was sacked for the 10th time.
Tuel ran the ball expertly on occasion on scrambles and designed running plays, and he said "there's no excuse" for taking a sack on the final play of the game. He faced heavy pressure for the second straight play.
The Cougars lost a down and were penalized 10 yards on the previous play when Tuel was flagged for intentional grounding. One play before that, Bobby Ratliffe made a sensational 25-yard catch to move WSU to Stanford's 9-yard line.
"That was one of the best catches I've seen since I've been here," Tuel said.
Still, WSU's losing streaks were extended to five games overall, 20 games against Top 25 teams, five games against Stanford, three games away from Pullman, three games at Stanford and seven games in the Pac-12 Conference.
With four games left in the regular season, the Cougars' best chance for a win might be next Saturday at Utah. WSU (2-6, 0-5) must win out to qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2003.
Washington State led Stanford 7-3 midway through the first quarter after Dominique Williams hauled in the first of Tuel's two touchdown passes. The Cardinal (6-2, 4-1) quickly regained the lead when a blown assignment in the secondary left Jamal-Rashad Patterson all alone on a 70-yard TD pass from Josh Nunes.
The Cougars forged a 10-10 tie at the half on Andrew Furney's 24-yard field goal as time expired. Stanford senior fullback Ryan Hewitt scored his first touchdown of the year on his sixth carry of the season to cap the opening drive of the second half.
Stanford's lead grew to 24-10 early in the fourth quarter when Ed Reynolds picked off a poorly thrown pass by Tuel and ran it back 25 yards for a touchdown. Tuel bounced back the following drive and took advantage of great protection to fire a 10-yard TD pass to Kristoff Williams with 6 minutes, 29 seconds left.
The game was played in gorgeous sunshine, but the crowd was far smaller than the official attendance of 41,496 (tickets distributed).
The Cougars made Stanford fans squirm despite the fact WSU played without leading rusher and kickoff returner Teondray Caldwell due to injury, and key receivers Gabe Marks and Gino Simone were lost to injury during the game.
"I think we played, I would say, if I had to put a percentage on it, 70-75 percent of our capabilities," Stanford coach David Shaw said.