Cougar implosion: WSU blows 32-point lead to UCLA

UCLA wide receiver Demetric Felton (10) skips past a tackle attempted by Washington State cornerback Marcus Strong (4) for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter of a Pac-12 Conference game Saturday in Pullman.

In a Washington State performance that included nine touchdown passes, 720 offensive yards and any number of school and conference records, the deciding factor was another statistic entirely.

Six turnovers.

That included three after-the-catch fumbles by receivers, including one that set up the winning touchdown with 1:07 remaining Saturday in UCLA’s imponderable 67-63 win before a capacity crowd at Martin Stadium in the Pac-12 opener for both teams.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw a 10-yard screen pass to Demetric Felton for the game-winner in the highest-scoring football game in Pac-12 history.

Despite blowing a 32-point second-half lead, the 19th-ranked Cougars thought they had gutted out a wild win when cornerback George Hicks III batted down a fourth-and-5 pass with 2:38 remaining.

But Easop Winston Jr. fumbled two plays from scrimmage later, with a video review overturning the original call, and the Bruins returned to the devastating offensive efficiency they had displayed for most of the second half.

“I thought we had horrible ball security,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “As coaches we did not get through to them, despite drills and talk in practice, to take care of the ball. They got sloppy with it. And the second half, we went out there loose and soft. We didn’t tackle them. We still haven’t tackled them.”

After the late UCLA (1-3, 1-0 Pac-12) score, the Bruins’ Josh Woods sacked Anthony Gordon to cause a fumble and secure the win.

So Gordon had to swallow a loss despite setting a WSU (3-1, 0-1) record with nine touchdown passes. Winston’s critical mistake sullied an otherwise stellar night that saw him tie a Wazzu record with four scoring catches.

"It would be pretty hard to win any football game when you turn the ball over six times," Gordon said. "We need to preach little things better in practice, collectively as players, enforce certain things and hold each other to a higher standard moving forward."

The dramatic turns came one after another, among them an electrifying catch-and-run by WSU’s Max Borghi, who tight-roped down the left sideline for a 65-yard touchdown and a 63-60 lead with 6:11 left.

That came shortly after Kyle Philips’ 69-yard punt return for the Bruins.

The Cougars’ 49-17 lead had dwindled to three before Gordon lofted a 33-yard scoring pass to Winston Jr. that briefly gave them some breathing room.

Capitalizing on after-the-catch fumbles by WSU’s Rodrick Fisher and Dezmon Patmon, the Bruins bolted back into contention with four consecutive touchdowns midway through the second half as Thompson-Robinson connected with Chase Cota, Felton and Devin Asiasi on widely varying plays, then scored on a keeper to cut the deficit to 56-53 with 8:10 remaining.

The most striking of these plays was a 94-yard catch-and-run by Felton, but the one that really made it a ballgame was the 7-yarder to Asiasi early in the fourth quarter.

"As a whole offense, we need to take more pride in holding on to the football," Gordon said. "Myself included — interceptions and everything, giving the other team the ball, giving them more chances to score and putting our defense in a tough spot."

The Bruins were 18 1/2-point underdogs.

"I always thought we were a good football team if we can be consistent," UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. "I'll tell you what helped us, our schedule helped us because we played 12 full quarters coming into this game. Some other players do not play 12 full quarters, and when you do ... and are battle-tested like our guys are, I think that showed up today."

Gordon finished 41-for-61 for 570 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions, finding Winston 10 times for 114 yards. Borghi added 123 rushing yards.

Thompson-Robinson threw 25-of-38 for 507 yards, five scores and one interception. Felton wound up with seven catches for 150 yards.

The Cougars started the game on the wrong foot, with Gordon throwing directly into the hands of linebacker Woods on the third play from scrimmage. The interception led to Thompson-Robinson’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Joshua Kelley.

The Cougs also turned the ball over on downs later in the first quarter, and Darnay Holmes of UCLA grabbed a Gordon pass bobbled by Patmon in the second.

Yet Gordon threw scoring passes on all five of the Cougs’ other first-half possessions, three to Winston and one each to Tay Martin and Travell Harris.

Martin’s agile back-shoulder catch, barely inbounds, made it 35-17 with 23 seconds remaining before halftime, and WSU safety Bryce Beekman made a touchdown-saving tackle inside the 1-yard-line after Thompson-Robinson hurled a 61-yard Hail Mary to Cota on the final play of the half.

The Bruins also got a 100-yard kickoff return from Felton in the half.

Gardner Minshew, the celebrated former WSU quarterback, attended the game, two days after leading the Jacksonville past Tennessee for his first NFL win. Before kickoff he made an extended appearance with the American Football Coaches Association national championship trophy, which was being displayed at the Cougville fan area near the stadium as part of a national tour. Hundreds of fans lined up for a chance to interact with Minshew at the AFCA tent.

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Dale Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.

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