ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With just more than 2 minutes left in Saturday’s Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Washington State held an eight-point lead against an opponent that had no timeouts left.
Fans eyed the exits, reporters across the landscape wrote the game off as over, and just about everyone at University Stadium was certain that WSU had won.
Everyone, including the Cougars.
“We got too complacent, kind of thought we won the game early,” senior linebacker Justin Sagote said after the Cougars’ 48-45 loss to Colorado State.
Jordon Vaden’s 12-yard touchdown reception left the Rams trailing 45-37 with 2:52 to play. But when the Cougars gained a first down with 2:30 left and CSU out of timeouts, it appeared the game was done.
On the next play, WSU’s Connor Halliday fumbled on a quarterback keeper, but officials ruled after a lengthy review that his knee touched the ground before the ball was loose.
CSU linebacker Shaquil Barrett then stripped the ball from running back Jeremiah Laufasa. The Rams recovered the ball and promptly tied the score with a 1-yard run by Kapri Bibbs and a two-point conversion on quarterback Garrett Grayson’s delayed handoff to Donnell Alexander with 33 seconds left. The play is known as the Statue of Liberty.
WSU’s Teondray Caldwell then fumbled the ensuing kickoff at the WSU 24, and that led to Jared Roberts’ 41-yard field goal with no time left on the clock, giving the Rams the win.
“They had a lot of reasons to quit in this game,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “They could have quit at any point because they spent most of the game about 10 points, two touchdowns behind. They never did quit.”
Before Halliday’s muffed quarterback keeper, the Cougars passed the ball on three consecutive plays. On their previous drive, up 45-30 with about 6 minutes left, the Cougars passed three times and ran three times.
“We throw the ball, that’s what we do,” WSU freshman wide receiver River Cracraft said. “We trust ourselves.”
Halliday’s passing had carried the Cougars’ offense throughout the first half. WSU (6-7) led 35-23 at halftime, following another Roberts field goal to end the half, because Halliday threw five touchdown passes to five receivers.
Halliday finished the day with 410 passing yards and six scores through the air, tying both Jason Gesser’s single-game school record and the NCAA bowl record.
“It’s just really frustrating that you have all that stuff happen early in the game, and that’s great and everything, but games are won at the end,” Halliday said. “We didn’t play well at the end.”
Every time WSU’s playmakers pushed the lead to blowout territory, CSU’s stars would respond with a big play of their own. CSU (8-6) finished the day with 595 yards of offense.
Bibbs rushed for 169 yards and three touchdowns for the Rams, giving him 31 on the season. He joins Barry Sanders and Montee Ball as the only members of the exclusive 30-touchdown club.
After WSU scored two second-quarter touchdowns to take a 35-13 lead, it was Bibbs who put CSU back in the end zone.
Later, when Andrew Furney’s 33-yard field goal put WSU up by 15 points, Bibbs responded with a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the ensuing drive.
“I’m still kind of at a loss for words about how that whole thing ended up,” Rams center Weston Richburg said. “It must have been destiny. That’s the most unbelievable game I’ve ever been a part of.”
With the loss, the Cougars finish with a .500 or lower record for the 10th consecutive season. Still, they appeared in their first bowl since the 2003 Holiday Bowl.
WSU senior safety Deone Bucannon was optimistic that Saturday’s loss wouldn’t put a damper on the team’s improvement.
“I don’t think this is diminishing to the team at all,” said Bucannon, who had an interception against CSU. “I honestly think the way that I know our team is, we’re going to bounce back, come back harder. We’re going to have a great offseason.”
The game didn’t begin like a shootout in which the teams would combine to score 31 first-quarter points. Max Morgan intercepted Halliday’s second pass of the game. The Rams maintained possession for one play, giving it back to the Cougars when cornerback Nolan Washington ripped the ball away from wide receiver Rashard Higgins and sprinted 29 yards and into CSU territory.
“Well, I know (bowl sponsor) Gildan is probably mad at me because everyone turned to other games,” joked CSU coach Jim McElwain.
Halliday quickly found Cracraft in the end zone for a 25-yard score and shortly thereafter threw a 1-yard touchdown strike to Gabe Marks to put WSU up 14-0.
The Rams never led until the game’s final second ticked off the clock.
“That win right there ... it’s pretty amazing how it worked, but at the end of the day, it’s about being resilient,” McElwain said. “It’s about understanding (that) every play has a history and life of its own.”
McClatchy news services contributed to this report.