A crimson explosion on D brings Wazzu back

PULLMAN -- They say that defense wins games. And truer words were never spoken about the Cougars on Saturday, even though they seemed a virtual impossibility with a couple minutes left in the third quarter.

After allowing a disheartening 404 yards of offense through the first three quarters, the Cougar defense raised the collective intensity to off the chart levels, forcing three interceptions of SMU QB Bo Levi Mitchell -- four if you include the last minute and a half of the third quarter. Two of those picks were returned for scores.

"They saved us," said QB Marshall Lobbestael. " They did a phenomenal job today, the four picks they had were huge and they saved the game for us."

The game changed completely with the picks. It's as simple as that.

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NOT SINCE 1987, when WSU returned a pair of picks for scores against Wyoming and Arizona, had Cougar fans seen the like. Saturday, LB's Alex Hoffman-Ellis and Myron Beck combined to tie the school record. But that was the least of what they accomplished.

Up until Hoffman-Ellis had his 52-yard touchdown interception, the Cougar faithful was kept completely out of the game. With an already scarce 22,319 in attendance, the crowd got smaller after Cougar turnovers, an SMU score and/or WSU three and outs. Boos rained onto the field after a Lobbestael incompletion, or a check down to a Cougar back that had little chance of a first down.

But Hoffman-Ellis lit a spark, and Beck put a blow torch to the candle. The result provided the remaining loyal fans with something in short supply since last year's Apple Cup.


Beck's 67 yard interception for score came with just over 10 minutes left in the contest and brought the Cougs within seven points of SMU. And hope began to turn to belief.

"Wow, is this happening?" said Beck on his TD. " I wanted to make sure I didn't get caught and ran as fast as I could."

Although Hoffman-Ellis and Beck will get the lion's share of the credit for saving the day, (and the Cougars' struggling offense), the two other interceptions of CB Brandon Jones and S Chima Nwachukwu shouldn't be overlooked.

The Cougars were forced to punt following Jones' pick but it stopped what looked to be certain points and prevented a two possession game -- a virtual death knell at that stage.

There were just over five minutes left in regulation when Jones made the diving interception. SMU had driven 58 yards and were already in easy field goal range.

Nwachukwu's leaping pick in the end zone came on the first play of overtime. It served up the Cougars' victory on a crimson platter, something few thought possible just an hour earlier.

"We had been running one of those coverages and the QB had been having a tough time trying to squeeze the ball in there, and we figured he was going to take a shot. So we told the corners to do their thing and the safeties we're going to make a play on the ball," said Nwachukwu. "Luckily, he put it in a spot where I could go and make a play. And it felt great to make a play for our team."


THE OPENING MOMENTS could not have gone any worse for WSU, as they lost one of their hosses inside. On the third play of the game, right guard B.J. Guerra went down, holding his knee. Guerra suffered a sprained MCL and will likely be out for a few weeks.

Whether it was because Guerra was out or not, the Cougars' running game went into hibernation and WSU had to battle adversity. Adjustments were made on the offensive line, including moving Brian Danaher over to right guard from left, Steven Ayers moving inside from left tackle to left guard, and bringing in Tyson Pencer to protect Lobbestael's blind side at LT. Pencer, a red-shirt freshman, acquitted himself well.

"Tyson Pencer played his first (college) football ever in his life at LT. (He's) got a very bright future," said Wulff. "We've lost our two starting guards in the last two weeks and both are very good football players."

All the adjustments didn't help the Cougars' run game. Lobbestael threw a career high 52 attempts.

OVER ON DEFENSE, the Cougars used three freshmen on the d-line at times, including crunch time -- Travis Long, Dan Spitz and Anthony Laurenzi. Laurenzi and Spitz saw their time increase after redshirt junior Bernard Wolfgramm came off the field following a 15-yard personal foul call. The frosh trio aren't where they'll be in a couple seasons, but Wulff said he was comfortable enough with them right now.

Long recorded his first collegiate sack, but it was effectively negated following Wolfgramm's penalty, which came well after the play was over. Laurenzi replaced Wolfgramm, and logged a pass deflection plus a six-yard sack -- his first. Spitz also played well with three tackles, one of which was for a key four-yard loss.

IN THE SECONDARY, the youth movement was also present. Safeties Eric Block and Jay Matthews saw a high number of turns on the field and played well in coverage.

"If you look at our defense, we had nine first year or second year players playing, so there was a lot of guys out there playing their first football -- and I was just proud of their effort, their belief and they kept competing," said Wulff.

IN TERMS OF adversity, though, no one overcame more than sophomore QB Marshall Lobbestael. After throwing for just 167 yards, 1 TD, and two interceptions, Lobbestael showed poise and leadership, methodically driving the Cougars 80 yards with just over two minutes left to knot the score at 27-to-27 and send it into overtime.

Lobbestael, who finished with a pair of TD's and 239 yards, passed for 72 of the 80 yards on the final drive in regulation, capped by a seven-yard scoring strike to Jared Karstetter. The sophomore WR was involved in another key play on the drive -- Karstetter ran a slant route on a fourth down but SMU corner Sterling Moore was all over the Spokane native. The penalty gave the Cougars new life.

THE LAST TIME Nico Grasu made a primetime clutch kick, it was the game winner in the '08 Apple Cup. Grasu, after missing one in the second quarter, drilled a 39 yarder to win it.

"I just tried to flush the first one and move on," said Grasu. "As soon as I hit it, it just felt good. On the first one, the reason I missed was because I picked up my head and just watched the ball. But on (the OT kick) I just told myself to keep my eyes back and let the crowd tell me if it goes in or not."

They did.

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