"You don't want to lose to a non-great team," said radio color commentator and former WSU coach Jim Walden in his postgame show. "The way we won today may be better than just winning."
At times, "non-great" seemed to be the best way to describe the Cougars, who were intercepted on the first play of the game, but their saving grace came in the form of two linebackers, one of them a true freshman.
STUNG BY MONTANA STATE'S repeated big plays on first downs in the first half, WSU co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball said they went to "zone pressure off the edge in the second half."
"At halftime, we figured out that we needed to come after them a bit more than we did in the first half," he said.
After watching the Bobcats score a touchdown and a field goal in third quarter, WSU seemed determined to dig itself out of a 22-7 hole entering the final period. Sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel came through, throwing back-to-back touchdowns to Andrei Lintz and Jared Karstetter to cut the deficit to 22-20.
"I feel like the second half we really attacked the soft spots in that defense," Tuel said of his first win as a crimson starter.
WSU missed the 2-point conversion when Tuel's pass to Karstetter sailed wide but on the Bobcats' next drive, Alex Hoffman-Ellis, a junior who got his first experience as a starter last season and had five tackles Saturday, intercepted quarterback Denarius McGhee's tipped pass and returned it to the Montana State 2-yard line.
But WSU couldn't punch it in. Still, an 18-yard field goal by Nico Grasu had all but sealed the deal for the Cougars, 23-22, right? Wrong. The Bobcats responded by driving down to the WSU 26.
THE SKY WAS DARK. The fans were on their feet. A very makable field goal attempt by MSU was on their minds. It was second-and-two.
Enter C.J. Mizell.
Mizell, a stalwart high-school player from Tallahassee, Fla., who had never been on an airplane before his January recruiting trip to Pullman, intercepted McGhee on a deflection and took it back 62 yards to the Montana State 16.
Mizell finished the game with five tackles and a sack, and he was in on at least two more hurries.
"C.J. always seems to show up some way, shape or form out there," WSU coach Paul Wulff said in a postgame radio interview. "C.J.'s a real work in progress, but he's well worth it. His talent is obvious."
BUT SOMEHOW, IT STILL wasn't over.
Wulff thought he would be able to run out the clock when the Cougars had first-and-10 at MSU 16 and 1:05 left. But he said after Tuel took a knee on second down, the play clock inadvertently was reset to 25 seconds. It should have started at 40 seconds. He said an official came over and apologized for the error.
Because of that error, WSU was not able to run out the clock. The Bobcats got the ball back with 16 seconds left on their own 25.
"The Cougars didn't get the job done," Walden said, "they fourth-quartered them. The Washington State ballclub was down 22-7, and it didn't seem like there was a way to come back ... but they managed to put it all together."
And the linebackers led the way.
"They were a little tight coming in because they were playing a 1-AA program," Ball said. "Virginia Tech was upset by James Madison, which made them a little tighter."
Wulff said he believes that stems from the program's struggles. WSU had a 1-11 record last season, and he feels players remain tentative about making mistakes.
"We've got to relax and trust and believe we can do what we need to win," Wulff said.
"We have got to clean up," he said. "There's no question that's an issue."
"I probably made it harder than it should have been," Tuel said.
The Cougars were scoreless through the first quarter for a second consecutive week. They have been outscored 23-0 during the opening period through two games.
"It would be nice to execute and play really good football," he said. "There are things you get out of this. We've got to pull all of the positives out of it."
"I was just representing for my boy LeAndre Daniels," Toomer said. "He's playing in spirit."