Cougs end 2021 with loss

WSU falls just short of three-touchdown comeback

WSU+defensive+edge+Brennan+Jackson+%2880%29+tries+to+block+a+pass+from+UW+quarterback+Sam+Huard+%287%29+during+the+Apple+Cup%2C+Friday%2C+Nov.+26%2C+2021%2C+at+Husky+Stadium+in+Seattle.

COLE QUINN

WSU defensive edge Brennan Jackson (80) tries to block a pass from UW quarterback Sam Huard (7) during the Apple Cup, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, at Husky Stadium in Seattle.

TOM ABBOTT, Evergreen reporter

WSU football could not complete a comeback against Central Michigan in the 88th annual Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl, losing 24-21. 

WSU fell into an early rut to start the game, failing to put up any points in the first half. This was the first time WSU was held scoreless in a half since 2017’s Apple Cup against the University of Washington. 

WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura was met with consistent pressure from Central Michigan’s defensive line. Because of the constant pressure in the backfield, the Cougs struggled to make progress downfield. WSU went 1-16 on third down conversions and 1-5 on fourth down conversions throughout the game.

Central Michigan took control early with the ball in the hands of running back Lew Nichols III. Nichols gave Central Michigan kicker Marshall Meeder solid field position to knock in a pair of field goals. Meeder came out hot, responsible for the first six points of the game with two long kicks. Nichols then got into the scoring action himself with a powerful 1-yard run through the WSU defensive line to bring the Central Michigan lead to 13-0. Nichols finished the Sun Bowl with 137 yards and one touchdown. 

Central Michigan quarterback Daniel Richardson kept the pressure on the Cougars in the second quarter. Richardson hit targets with ease before halftime, resulting in another Central Michigan touchdown. The ball crossed the goal line in the hands of Chippewa wide receiver Joel Wilson for a 15-yard touchdown pass from Richardson. Richardson finished the game with 193 yards and one touchdown.

Central Michigan capped the scoring drive with a gutsy two-point attempt. The decision paid off and Central Michigan added another two points to their double-digit lead, 21-0. The score remained 21-0 going into halftime. 

Star WSU wide receiver Calvin Jackson Jr. was injured early in the first half and returned from the locker room for the second half dressed in street clothes. 

WSU third-string backup quarterback Victor Gabalis took over for de Laura to start the second half. De Laura suffered a back injury late in the first half and Dickert decided not to risk further injury for the sophomore quarterback. 

De Laura went 9-19 on pass attempts for a measly 45 yards. WSU second-string quarterback Jarrett Guarantano likely would have been the first choice in replacing de Laura, but Guarantano chose not to travel to the bowl game. 

“I just always prepare myself to be ready,” Gabalis said. “I got a great group of men behind me that trusted me and they give me faith in myself.”

Gabalis welcomed his new responsibilities on the field with open arms. Gabalis showed he was up for the task in the third quarter, moving WSU downfield. With a little over four minutes left in the third quarter, Gabalis went down in the red zone and the Cougs were forced to bring in Travell Harris to run a wildcat formation. Harris took the direct snap and ran the ball into the end zone for the first WSU points of the game, 7-21. 

“He’s always stayed ready, it hasn’t always gone his way, but he practices that way, he prepares that way so when he gets his moment he’s gonna be ready for his opportunity,” WSU head coach Jake Dickert said about Gabalis. “I thought that’s exactly what he did there in the second half and really gave us a good spark.”

The WSU defense capitalized on this change in momentum, with defensive back Travion Brown catching an interception on the very first play of Central Michigan’s next drive. Brown’s interception gave the ball back to Gabalis and the offense just 23 yards from another touchdown. 

WSU running back Nakia Watson powered through the Central Michigan defense to pick up a first down at the ten-yard line. Watson finished the game with 15 carries for 58 yards. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Central Michigan’s DaeDae Hill moved the ball up another five yards and the Cougs looked ready to score again. Gabalis connected with wide receiver De’Zhaun Stribling on fourth and goal for another Cougars touchdown, 14-21. This was Gabalis’ first career touchdown pass. 

Meeder added another three points to Central Michigan’s lead with a field goal, 14-24. The Cougs were not deterred by the ten-point deficit and continued to trust Gabalis with the ball. Gabalis returned the favor by throwing a dime pass to wide receiver Donovan Ollie for a 56-yard gain. A pass interference call against Central Michigan’s Hill gave WSU a fresh set of downs 16 yards from the goal line. Gabalis then threw a beautifully-placed ball to wide receiver Lincoln Victor in the end zone for a WSU touchdown, 21-24. Victor finished the game leading the team in yards with a career-high 88 yards. 

“I feel like I was ready for this spotlight, I was ready for this moment,” Victor said. “This is just a sample of what I can do, what I can showcase.”

The Cougars defense gave the offense a chance to win or send the game into overtime with a field goal, but Gabalis could not find success on the drive. The Cougs’ last hope was a completed fourth down pass to Joey Hobert that put the ball inches from a first down. The play was reviewed and the chains were measured, and WSU’s hopes of a Sun Bowl victory faded as a Central Michigan win became clear. Gabalis finished the game with 180 yards and two touchdowns.

The Central Michigan offense assumed the victory formation and took a few knees to let the clock run out. With no time left to play, Central Michigan began their celebration by pouring Frosted Flakes onto head coach Jim McElwain.

The Cougs struggled to fill the gaps on the roster left by players opting out of the game. The WSU run game suffered the most, with two offensive linemen out as well as both normal running backs. Offensive linemen Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan were absent from the game. Lucas opted-out of the bowl game and Ryan was injured in practice. 

Running backs Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh did not make the trip to El Paso either. Borghi opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft and McIntosh violated team rules. WSU head coach Jake Dickert did not give details on McIntosh’s situation. The less experienced members of the WSU offensive line were forced to step up and play more snaps as well as Watson, who represented the lone WSU running back in the game. 

Central Michigan’s win over WSU is the first MAC bowl game win against a Power 5 team in 18 years.