As hundreds of Washington State fans swarmed the field as midnight approached at Martin Stadium, the Boise State football team could only take a slow, agonizing walk around the jovial Cougar faithful.
Boise State, a 10-point underdog for the first time in nine years, was not expected to beat the No. 20 Cougars, but after the Broncos’ 47-44 triple-overtime loss, the upset should have been theirs.
In the final 8 minutes of regulation Saturday night, Washington State erased a 21-point deficit behind backup quarterback Tyler Hilinski. A day shy of a year prior, Boise State led by 17 and had to hold on for dear life in a 31-28 win at home.
“It hurts, because I think their whole mindset was that we didn’t really have a chance and we shouldn’t have won last year’s game,” said Boise State junior linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who had 16 tackles and two sacks. “I think we proved in this game that we definitely ... we hurt ourselves, and if we didn’t hurt ourselves, then we would have won (this) game.”
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Hilinski stepped in for senior Luke Falk, the top active career passer in all of college football, and after an interception on his first drive, was sharp. He completed 25-of-33 passes for 240 yards with three touchdowns, the last of which was a 22-yarder to running back Jamal Morrow that won it after Boise State kicked a field goal on its possession in the third overtime.
Boise State (1-1) held Washington State (2-0) without an offensive touchdown the first 52 minutes, but the Cougars scored twice on defensive touchdowns.
“It was just a back and forth whirlwind of emotions,” junior defensive end Durrant Miles said.
The result won’t sit easy, but consider this — the Broncos held a prolific offense to 17 points in regulation and nearly knocked off a top-20 team on the road in three overtimes with their backup quarterback.
As Hilinski replaced Falk, Boise State had senior Montell Cozart step in for junior starter Brett Rypien, who left with 43 seconds left in the first quarter after a big hit on a sack. Rypien left after completing 7-of-8 passes and did not return. His status is unknown for the Broncos’ next game, Thursday against New Mexico.
Cozart was 12-of-20 passing for 161 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He led the team with 72 rushing yards on 14 attempts, scoring a touchdown. But that interception proved to be a backbreaker, as Cozart was nearly sacked on a second-and-7 and tossed a head-scratching shovel pass that went right to linebacker Peyton Pelluer, who ran it back 36 yards for the touchdown to cut the Boise State lead to 31-24 with 5:51 to play.
“There were some impressive plays out there, but that certainly is one of them that we want back,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “... Those mistakes are costly. It becomes points and you’ve got to learn from it.
“Under the circumstances, on the road, him coming in there and playing and Brett being out, Montell stepping up, he did some really good things. That one there, that’s one that he and I and everybody would want back. You learn from it, put ourselves in that situation again, which he will be, you don’t do it and you make a better decision.”
According to ESPN, Boise State had a 99 percent chance of winning before Cozart’s interception.
The Broncos had another shot to seal the game after forcing a Washington State punt with 3 minutes to play, but Kyle Sweet’s short punt hit blocker Reid Harrison-Ducros in the back, with the Cougars pouncing on the ball. Four plays later, Hilinski hit Morrow for a 6-yard touchdown and the tie with 1:44 remaining.
“That was an incredible amount of adversity,” Pelluer said. “... (Hilinski) came in clutch.”
Both teams made field goals in the first overtime and traded touchdowns in the second. Boise State’s was a 15-yard touchdown from Cozart to senior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson. But the Broncos only got 5 yards in the third overtime and mustered a 37-yard Haden Hoggarth field goal before Hilinski and Morrow hooked up for the winner on their second play.
“Could we have done better in certain areas? Absolutely. Were there some spectacular plays that our guys made? Yes they did, but that gets overshadowed by the loss,” Harsin said.
Plays like redshirt freshman STUD end Curtis Weaver’s 55-yard fumble return on Falk’s last play with 10:53 to go, with Jabril Frazier’s sack knocking Falk out of the game. That came just 4 minutes after a 47-yard strike from Cozart to Wilson.
But the Cougars made big plays, too, scoring their first touchdown on a 7-yard Robert Taylor fumble recovery.
“Every loss is pretty tough, but to go out in a close one is pretty hard knowing that we can execute a little bit better,” Wilson said. “Not saying Washington State isn’t good, they’re a great team — they executed more plays than we did.”
Harsin said it won’t be painful for him to review Saturday’s heartbreaker. Perhaps making it easier to move past is the instant shift in focus — next up for the Broncos is a 6 p.m. MT Thursday kickoff against New Mexico and its run-heavy, option-based attack.
The win would have been a major step for Boise State in a return to national prominence, but it was evident this team at worst will be a major factor in the Mountain West. Conference play begins this week with the Lobos.
“We would have to turn it around, win or lose,” Harsin said. “... Defensively, we’re going to be working against something absolutely different than what we just faced.”