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Just a Moment, Cougars

Nonconference: In a rare chance on national stage, No. 10 Washington State implodes in second half of 25-7 loss at Ohio State.

September 15, 2002|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Every 108 years or so, Washington State sneaks to No. 10 in the national polls in September, gets a chance to come to a place like this and make news beyond the greater Spokane metropolitan area.

The magnitude of the moment obviously hit the visitors Saturday in the late afternoon sun, when No. 6 Ohio State got smart, handed the ball to Maurice Clarett and outscored Washington State, 19-0, en route to a 25-7 win before a record crowd of 104,553 at Ohio Stadium.

Clarett, a true freshman, ran 31 times for 230 yards, 194 after intermission, in a performance that exhausted Washington State and its not-so-farfetched national title hopes.

"We had a chance to play in the big arena, the big show, and we didn't get it done," Washington State Coach Mike Price said. "Simple as that."

Not that simple, exactly.

Washington State (2-1) started out as if it belonged in the arena, driving 80 yards for a touchdown on its opening possession and giving no indication it would be the Cougars' only score of the game.

For a half, Washington State's spread offense poked holes in the Ohio State defense while the Cougar defense stood firm in a hostile atmosphere.

Washington State led, 7-6, after 30 minutes, and it would have been more had the Cougars not botched a center snap on a short field goal try right before the half.

Price couldn't have been more pleased.

"I thought we were right there," he said. "We thought it would be just fine."

He was wrong, of course, as Ohio State (3-0) turned the clock back 30 years and pretended it was Woody Hayes on the sideline and Archie Griffin around end.

Clarett carried 20 times in the second half and shed Washington State tacklers the way a snake sheds skin.

On the Buckeyes' first third-quarter possession, Clarett rushed for 74 yards in four carries on a 91-yard drive that ended with his three-yard touchdown to put his team up, 13-7.

His scoring dash was set up by a 20-yard burst in which he bowled over two Washington State defenders, Jason David and Erik Coleman, before being run out of bounds.

Mike Nugent added his third field goal, a 44-yarder, later in the quarter to make it 16-7, and then the wheels came off the Pullman cruiser.

It started when Troy Bienemann's center snap on a punt sailed through the end zone and halfway to Dayton for a safety to make it 18-7.

Then, surprise, Ohio State turned to Clarett to run out the game in the fourth quarter.

After gains of six, four, six, six and six yards, an exhausted Clarett, his legs cramping, limped to the Buckeye bench, but he wasn't out for long.

After quarterback Craig Krenzel ran 29 yards on a bootleg to the Washington State one-yard line, Clarett ran back on the field and scored on first and goal with 10:41 left to make it 25-7.

"You have to be tough in the Big Ten," Clarett said. "I knew I had to suck it up and keep playing through it. Coach [Jim] Tressel says it's a privilege to carry the ball at Ohio State, and I want to make the most of every opportunity I get."

To a man, Washington State described Clarett, 6 feet and 230 pounds, as a load.

The Cougars did a decent job of surrounding Clarett, the way you would a wild buck, but not wrapping up on tackles. On some runs, Clarett simply moved the pile four and five yards before going down.

"He carried that team today," Cougar defensive tackle Rien Long said. "We went to five-man fronts and he still found ways to break through. I saw his number plenty of times going down the field, and I didn't like that too much."

Part of the problem was Washington State's supposedly dynamic offense locked up after its opening touchdown.

The passing seams quarterback Jason Gesser had in the first half were sewn shut by a defense that refused to bite on a lot of the kitchen-sink plays the team likes to use.

Gesser, who was trying to forward his Heisman Trophy campaign here, finished having completed 25 of 44 passes with one touchdown and two interceptions.

Gesser took more and more shots as the game wore on and he wore out.

"I take full blame for this game for not putting points on the board," Gesser said. "Because we really had our chances."

Gesser's last chance ended with 7:10 left, when his fourth-and-three pass from the Ohio State 14 was intercepted by Tyler Everett.

Before heading back to Pullman, Washington State would gripe about this opportunity lost and even some questionable officiating, notably a pass interference penalty that was not called on Ohio State near the end of the second half.

You thought the Ohio State defensive players talked tough?

Gesser said that was nothing compared to the men in stripes.

"I was talking trash to the refs because they were talking trash to me," an astonished Gesser said afterward.

Price also wondered why Clarett was still running down Main Street with the game already decided.

"I guess he needed more practice because they left him in right to the end of the game," Price said.

Washington State's season certainly did not end here. The team picked to win the Pacific 10 Conference can still do that, and perhaps earn a rematch against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

What was lost in Ohio, in September, was a moment Washington State gets once in a blue harvest moon--the chance to position itself in the national title race.

"Anything can happen in the BCS," Cougar receiver Scott Lunde said.

We'll see.

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