Different path, same destination.
Washington State finally looked the part of an upset specialist when quarterback Jeff Tuel hit Bobby Ratliff streaking 25 yards downfield in the waning seconds of Saturday's 24-17 loss to the No. 17 Stanford Cardinal. The spectacular, back-shoulder reception converted a 4th-and-21 and gave WSU possession at Stanford's nine-yard line.
But the Cougars' offensive line -- overpowered all afternoon by Stanford's front seven-- again proved too feeble. Tuel, who finished 43-for-60 for 401 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, was called for intentional grounding when Stanford's Usua Amanam busted up the middle for a momentum-crushing sack. Cardinal defensive end Henry Anderson ended the game a play later when he recorded Stanford's tenth sack of the game.
Marquess Wilson helped set up the game-ending drive with a 42-yard reception that marched WSU into Stanford territory. The junior posted his 14th 100-yard receiving game of his career, finishing with exactly 100 yards.
WSU (2-6, 0-5 Pac-12) ran 30 more plays than the Cardinal (84-52), controlled the time of possession (33:36 to 26:24) and out-gained Stanford (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) by 129 yards (385-256).
None of it mattered.
"The truth of the matter is we beat them nearly everywhere but the scoreboard," WSU coach Mike Leach said. "They played more mature than we did and they won. It's as simple as tha . . . they're a more mature team and I think they showed it today."
The Cougars fell behind 24-10 early in the fourth quarter when Ed Reynolds returned a misguided Tuel pass 23 yards for a touchdown. Tuel responded with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Kristoff Williams his next possession, but the 14-point advantage proved too large.
So how about a silver lining after another depressing defeat?
WSU played impressively in the first half against the Cardinal for the second consecutive year.
After Stanford settled for a field goal in its first possession, WSU held quarterback Josh Nunes and running back Stepfan Taylor in check the remainder of the quarter. However, Leach's Air Raid Offense couldn't capitalize because the makeshift offensive line surrendered five sacks in the first fifteen minutes.
WSU finally broke through when Tuel lofted a 43-yard touch pass to Dominique Williams on third-and-12 early in the second quarter, moving the Cougars down to the Stanford 6. After a roughing the passer penalty, Tuel hit Williams on another fade, this one in the back corner of the end zone to give WSU a 7-3 lead.
The momentum wouldn't last.
WSU's secondary made its only critical error on the second play of the ensuing drive when safety Tyree Toomer mistakenly believed he had defenders behind him. The senior let Cardinal Jamal-Rashad Patterson blow by and Nunes hit him down the sidelines for a 70-yard touchdown. The quarterback finished just 7-of-15 for 136 yards and a touchdown. More impressively, the Cougars held Taylor to 58 yards on 21 carries.
"They never really got their run game established," Leach said.
Meanwhile, WSU knotted the score at 10 just before the half when Andrew Furney chipped in a 24-yard field goal. Leach said the loss was the WSU's best effort of the season.
"I thought we played a complete game," he said. "I thought we played hard throughout the game in all aspects. We made a lot of individual plays. We just need to put them together."
Stanford's other offensive touchdown came at the start of the second half. A methodical 13-play, 78-yard drive gave coach David Shaw's team a 17-10 lead it never relinquished. The possession was a microcosm of the third-quarter struggles WSU has experienced all season, according to Leach. Officials extended the drive with a questionable pass interference penalty against cornerback Anthony Carpenter on third-and-seven inside the red zone.
The play was a turning point.
"The best drive Stanford had was the one that opened the second half," Leach said. "That's unfortunate. We should have stopped them there and then offensively we went three-and-out."
WSU is now just a loss away from missing a bowl game for the ninth consecutive season. Tuel, despite posting career-high passing yards, sounded off after dropping another Pac-12 game.
"We play like we did tonight and we can play with any team in this conference," he said. "It's time the guys start believing in that and start playing like it."
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?