PULLMAN - Just when it seemed the Washington State football program could sink no further, the Montana State Bobcats threw the Cougars a cast-iron life jacket Saturday.
First, the Bobcats expanded their 13-7 halftime lead by scoring on a 45-yard flea flicker midway through the third quarter. Then MSU recovered a fumble on the kickoff return and booted a field goal, and the Bobcats led 22-7.
Suddenly, Washington State was in danger of losing to Montana State – a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly NCAA Division I-AA) team – for the first time in the 105-year history of the series between the schools.
Suddenly, Washington State was looking at an 0-2 start and, no doubt, a flood of irate fans calling for the head of coach Paul Wulff.
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All the doom and gloom ended with a joyful celebration shared by the Cougars and the student section after WSU scored the only 16 points of the fourth quarter – including Nico Grasu’s game-winning field goal with 2 minutes, 13 seconds remaining – to cinch a 23-22 triumph at Martin Stadium.
“The coaches said all week, all they wanted us to do is just fight,” linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis said. “Fight. We showed our hearts.”
The offense, defense and special teams all shared in the fourth-quarter comeback. Sophomore tight end Andrei Lintz scored on the first play of the quarter on his first college reception; Jeff Tuel threw a 19-yard bullet that a leaping Jeff Karstetter hauled in for a touchdown with 5:06 to play; and after a failed attempt to tie the game with a two-point conversion pass, Hoffman-Ellis and fellow linebacker C.J. Mizell sandwiched interceptions around Grasu’s field goal to secure the win.
“Obviously, I’m very excited we won the ball game,” Wulff said. “I don’t know if we played our best game by no means, but this is what I’ve been talking about: Trying to find a way to win ball games.”
Senior running back James Montgomery helped the Cougars find a way by running for 116 yards – 70 on one play – and one touchdown. Montgomery helped offset a fine performance by MSU redshirt freshman Denarius McGhee, who completed 24 of 37 passes for 266 yards, two TD’s and three interceptions – all of which were deflected.
“That was really unusual and very unfortunate and unlucky,” MSU coach Rob Ash said.
The much-maligned Cougars defense played a pivotal role in the win.
The Cougars were torched for 544 yards last week in a season-opening, 65-17 loss at Oklahoma State.
Montana State opened the season with a 59-10 win over NCAA Division II Fort Lewis (Colo.) last week.
Asked what he had to say to WSU defensive players, Tuel said, “Thank you. I try to tip my hat because we wouldn’t have been in this game without them.”
The victory was the first in college for Tuel, who started half of the season as a true freshman last year. Mizell, a true freshman who wound up at WSU after he failed to qualify academically at Florida State last season, all but clinched the victory with his interception and 62-yard return with 1:05 to play.
“That’s the first interception I’ve ever caught in my life,” a beaming Mizell said.
Tuel completed 18 of 29 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns and one interception. The Cougars turned it over on their first play from scrimmage for the second straight week when Tuel threw the ball directly to freshman linebacker Aleksei Grosulak.
Montana State fell to 0-8 all-time against WSU. The victory was the fourth in 27 tries for Wulff in three years as head coach at his alma mater. WSU had lost 10 straight games, two shy of the school record, since defeating Southern Methodist 30-27 in overtime nearly one year ago (Sept. 19, 2009) at Martin Stadium.
The Cougars visit Southern Methodist University in Dallas next Saturday (12:30 p.m., CBS College Sports). Both teams are 1-1.