SAN DIEGO — The play that epitomized Washington State’s 17-12 Holiday Bowl defeat against underdog Minnesota occurred with 3:23 left in the third quarter.
On third-and-eight from WSU’s 13-yard line, Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner — who was 5 of 12 for 70 passing yards at that point — lofted the ball up toward the end zone, a floater of a pass the Cougars’ defensive backs gazed at longingly.
Dropping in coverage, right cornerback Marcellus Pippins reached up, and until his right hand connected with the ball it looked like it would be an interception and WSU’s second take-away of the game.
But it wasn’t to be. Pippins’ outstretched hand hit the ball but he couldn’t come down with it. Instead, he inadvertently tipped it into the hands of Minnesota running back Shannon Brooks, who scored on a most unlikely 13-yard touchdown to put the Golden Gophers up 10-6 with 3:18 left in the third quarter.
“I usually end up on the wrong side of those,” said Leidner, who finished 11 of 20 for 129 yards and a touchdown after entering the Holiday Bowl with seven touchdowns to 12 interceptions this season.
That’s just the way the night unfolded for the Cougars, who shot themselves in the foot on multiple occasions, failed to capitalize on some early opportunities and allowed Minnesota to sneak up and beat them at the end.
That lucky touchdown stood as Minnesota’s most effective offensive play until the final three minutes of the game, when Rodney Smith broke through the Cougars’ defense and scored on a 9-yard touchdown run that proved to be the difference.
WSU’s usually entertaining offense was downright offensive at Qualcomm Stadium on Tuesday night. In total, the Cougars punted eight times and managed only a season-low 303 offensive yards in a surprisingly low-scoring affair that produced more punts (15) and penalties (17) than third-down conversions (10) from both teams combined.
“We sucked,” WSU senior receiver Gabe Marks said. “Our offense was horrible today. It was our fault. Our defense played good, and special teams played more than good enough to win the game.”
Quarterback Luke Falk went 30 of 51 for 264 yards and the Cougars didn’t manage a touchdown until the final 19 seconds, when Falk connected with Kyle Sweet on an 8-yarder.
“I didn’t think we played well offensively at all,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “I think it’s accurate (to say) we never got in a rhythm. We were frantic.”
Down 17-12, WSU attempted a two-point conversion, but Falk’s pass to C.J. Dimry fell incomplete. The Cougars got another crack at the two-point conversion because Minnesota’s Duke McGhee was penalized for targeting, but that attempt also came up short, much like the Cougars through the final three games of the season.
“We won eight games, it’s not bad,” Marks said. “But we lost the first two games because we weren’t ready to play and we lost the last three games because we weren’t ready to play.
“I don’t know how that happens. How you can go and win eight games in a row against top competition. We left a lot on the table.”
WSU will go into the offseason smarting from the memory of those three consecutive defeats at the end of the year, though, Leach said, “I thought we had a good year.”
“Going into this year, if you told people we’d win as many games as we did, they would have laughed me out of the room,” Leach said. “But we got upset five times, and that’s our fault.”
Despite their offensive ineptitude, the Cougars stayed within striking distance of the Golden Gophers until the final three minutes of the game, when on fourth-and-six from the 45, Falk was intercepted by backup safety Adekinle Ayinde.
Ayinde initially appeared to run the ball back for a 52-yard score, but the official review showed he’d stepped out at the 31-yard line.
Still, the overturned score merely prolonged the inevitable for WSU, which allowed Smith to score on the Gophers’ ensuing drive.
Minnesota, which made national headlines earlier this month when its players announced a boycott to protest the suspensions of 10 teammates in relation to a sexual-assault investigation, took the field against the Cougars without starting cornerback KiAnte Hardin and starting safety Antoine Winfield.
But judging by how the Cougars’ offense performed, the Gophers did just fine with their backups in the defensive secondary.
“We did a good job of forcing them to keep dumping the ball underneath without giving up the play up top — it goes back to what some people call the ‘bend-but-don’t-break’ defense,” Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys said.
By the end of the first half, all the Cougars had to show for themselves were two field goals from Erik Powell from two sputtering offensive drives.