Washington St. 32, Oregon 21
-- When the clock finally expired, declaring Washington State's 32-21 victory over Oregon official today, jubilant Cougars fans leapt over the Martin Stadium railings and stormed the field, shouting, "We're going to the Rose Bowl!"
The chanting was a bit premature, of course, as fifth-ranked Washington State still must win one of its two remaining Pacific-10 Conference games (against Washington and UCLA) to clinch the conference title and Rose Bowl bid that accompanies it.
But to Cougars fans, all things seemed possible in the wake of today's ugly victory over the pesky Ducks (7-3, 3-3), who had won the four previous meetings in this 101-year rivalry.
With the victory, before a sellout crowd of 37,600, Washington State ran its record to 9-1, 6-0 in Pac-10 play. It was the first victory that anyone on the Cougars squad had scored over Oregon. And for the defense, in particular, it avenged last season's humiliating loss, in which the Ducks piled up a school-record 446 rushing yards.
And while Washington State players steered clear of indulging Fiesta Bowl dreams, all were aware within moments of today's victory that No. 1-ranked Oklahoma had been upset by Texas A&M. That means the Cougars could inch up from No. 5 to fourth in the next Bowl Championship Series rankings. And if Texas should stumble down the stretch and Miami fall to Virginia Tech in its season finale, the Cougars might just end up in contention for a national title.
"We can't let that distract us," said running back Jermaine Green. "We still have a couple games left."
Even without the championship dreams, there was plenty to celebrate in the wake of today's sloppy, but ultimately resilient victory.
Washington State boasts three towering wide receivers and an arm-slinging quarterback in Heisman Trophy long shot Jason Gesser. Lined up against Oregon's undersized and inexperienced defensive backs, the Cougars' offense was expected to shatter records today.
Instead, they squandered untold yards with numerous drops and overthrown balls, only some of which could be blamed on the dank, drizzly conditions.
Quarterback play was ragged on both ends, with Gesser virtually handing Oregon two touchdowns: The first, when he was stripped by cornerback Steven Moore, who pranced 12 yards into the end zone to tie the game at 7; later, on an interception by linebacker Kevin Mitchell, who ran it back 20 yards for another score.
Gesser made up for the glitches with smart play in the fourth quarter, finishing with 277 passing yards, four touchdowns and the pair of costly turnovers. But the day's most intriguing battle was between the team's respective running backs, with Washington State's Green coming out decidedly on top, piling up a career-high 180 yards on 25 carries.
Onterrio Smith, the star of last year's Oregon rout, was held to a paltry 64 yards by an inspired Washington State defense.
WSU Coach Mike Price was thrilled with the outcome, despite the 14 points that were given away and the untold points left unscored.
"We had adversity, but our players fought through it," Price said. "It sure helps when you can play defense and run the football in November."
Washington State was first to score, taking advantage of a short field, courtesy of a 28-yard punt and penalty by Oregon's special teams unit. It took just four plays for Gesser to find wide receiver Devard Darling with an eight-yard touchdown pass. With the throw, Gesser notched his 22nd consecutive game with a touchdown pass and gave his team a 7-0, first-quarter lead.
But Gesser's hesitation on the next possession cost him. He dropped back, cocked his arm and was stripped by Moore, whose return knotted the score. Rattled by the turnover, the Cougars' offense grew even more ragged as the rain and wind kicked up.
Wide receiver Mike Bush (107 yards), who caught two touchdown passes, shouldered much of the blame for the balls that ended up on the ground.
"We just didn't concentrate enough," Bush said. "Jason has been here four or five years. We didn't say nothing to him. He's the best quarterback we've got here, and we think he's one of the best in the nation."
The Ducks dug in their heels, taking their first lead on a lob pass from Jason Fife to Jason Willis, who spun out of a defender's grasp to stretch an arm into the end zone to go up 14-10.
Washington State took a 17-14 lead shortly before the half, on Gesser's three-yard strike to Bush.
Both teams turned in a sloppy third quarter. Gesser threw the interception, and the Cougars went three plays and out on two consecutive possessions that started in Ducks territory. But in a 59-second burst in the fourth quarter, Washington State piled on 12 points.
On third and 17, Gesser hit Bush for a 21-yard completion and a four-yard touchdown throw. A minute later, Gesser completed a 46-yard strike to Darling.
"We knew we had to get it done," Darling said. "We knew we had to pull together and went out there and executed and got it done."