PULLMAN - They have lost games by playing shoddy defense. They have lost them by making mistakes on offense. Their special teams have taken their lumps as well.
But in losing a school-record 12th straight game yesterday, 30-24, to Arizona, some members of the Washington State football team are convinced that something different - robbery - was the latest ticket to defeat.
Television replays of the game's last play tend to support the robbery theory.
With the score tied at 24, 5 seconds to play and Arizona at the WSU 42-yard line, quarterback Keith Smith threw a "Hail Mary" pass toward a corner of the end zone. The ball came down in the midst of three Wildcat receivers and Cougar defenders.
Eventually, Arizona freshman Bobby Wade leaped to his feet while clutching the ball, indicating he had scored a touchdown. One of the officials in the vicinity agreed and signaled a touchdown.
Game, set and match.
"My biggest thing is the official didn't see it, so how can he make that call?" asked Cougar safety Billy Newman, who was in the vicinity of the play. "I asked him that while we were walking away. He had like a stunned look on his face. I'm saying, `How can you make the call if you don't see anything?'
"It's a tie game, you just don't make that call. You let the two teams duke it out."
One replay view appeared to show the ball hitting the ground and, while it was bouncing up, Wade getting his arms underneath it and lifting it above his head.
"I caught the ball," Wade said. "I showed the ball (to the officials) right away, so I was sure they were going to give it to me. No doubt."
Malosi Leonard, another Arizona receiver involved in the play, was not quite as sure as Wade that the ball had, in fact, been caught.
"To me, it seemed like he had it, but I was upside-down, trying to find the ball in the air," Leonard said.
When was asked if it was possible that the ball came out, Leonard said:
"It might have, but the referees called it a touchdown; so that's what I'm going with."
Speaking to a pool reporter, referee Pat Flood, head of the officiating crew, said:
"I was 50 yards away, watching the quarterback, and all I see is the touchdown signal. Our officials ruled a touchdown. Two of them saw the receiver catch the ball."
The two were field judge Jerry Gastellum and back judge Bob Wucetich. Gastellum signalled the touchdown.
"I think they both signaled at the same time," Flood said. "That's what they told us, but I don't know."
The outcome brought to a negative conclusion what had been the best game of the season for the Cougars (0-4).
WSU's offense, led by quarterbacks Steve Birnbaum and Jason Gesser and freshman running back Deon Burnett, generated a season-high point total. The defense, featuring the three linebackers - Steve Gleason, Raonall Smith and Curtis Holden - and Newman at free safety gave their team a chance to win.
Birnbaum completed 12 of 19 passes for 112 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown toss to Farwan Zubedi that might have been the fifth-year senior's best throw of the season. Gesser was at his most productive this fall in directing two touchdown series while completing three of five for 53 yards and in scrambling for 45 yards.
Burnett had his best game of the year in rushing 13 times for 96 yards and two touchdowns.
The Wildcats (3-2) had their standouts as well, particularly running back Trung Canidate, who rushed 34 times for 158 yards and three touchdowns, and receivers Dennis Northcutt and Wade. Northcutt had five catches for 107 yards and a 68-yard punt return; Wade had five receptions for 100 yards and the game-winning touchdown catch.
"I think we won that football game," WSU Coach Mike Price said.
"We played like winners. I'm proud of the team, and the effort they gave was tremendous. They had the game taken away from them at the end."
Arizona Coach Dick Tomey said it was too bad that somebody had to lose. He recalled the last time Arizona played here in 1997, when quarterback Ortege Jenkins was stopped short of making a two-point conversion in overtime that preserved a 35-34 WSU victory.
"It's just one of those games and one of those things," Tomey said. "But it's one of those things that you practice every week."
Tomey said he couldn't see the last play.
"When I see it on tape, it will be the first time I see it," he said.
After Arizona had gone ahead 24-17 on Canidate's third touchdown run, the Cougars countered immediately.
Newman returned the ensuing kickoff 30 yards to the Cougar 45. After Gesser threw an incomplete pass, Burnett, in a delay up the middle, ran 55 yards for a touchdown. Rian Lindell, who also kicked a 52-yard field goal, booted his third extra point and it was 24-24.
After the WSU defense forced Arizona to punt, the Cougars had the ball on their 47 with 2:43 to play. Three plays later, it was fourth and 2 from the Arizona 45 with about 2 minutes to play.
Price had choices to make: a wind-aided 62-yard field-goal attempt by Lindell, an attempt to get a first down, or a punt. He chose the latter.
"I had the running play (in mind) that we would have run in that situation," Price said. "I thought about the field goal, and I thought about punting the ball down there.
"When I think about it, I think `why the heck didn't I go for it?' "
The Wildcats responded with an 80-yard drive to the winning touchdown.
Washington State's loss yesterday was its 12th in a row, the nation's third-longest major-college losing streak. WSU has not won since beating Idaho 24-16 last Sept. 19. The previous 11 losses:
At Cal 24, WSU 14 - Six turnovers hurt Cougs after they started season 3-0, beating Illinois, Boise State and Idaho.
At UCLA 49, WSU 17 - UCLA charges to 28-0 lead, helped by three first-quarter WSU turnovers.
Oregon 51, at WSU 29 - Ducks' Reuben Droughns rushes for 221 yards and scores four TDs.
USC 42, at WSU 14 - Cougars trail 21-14 at halftime before Trojans take charge.
Arizona State 38, at WSU 28 - WSU falls despite Kevin Brown's 153 rushing yards.
At Arizona 41, WSU 7 - Wildcats, ranked 10th, pile up 517 total yards.
At Stanford 38, WSU 28 - WSU lets two 14-point leads slip away.
Washington 16, at WSU 9 - Cougars finish 1998 season winless in Pac-10 games for first time since 1975.
Utah 27, at WSU 7 - Fumbles, penalties hurt Cougars in WSU's '99 opener.
At Stanford 54, WSU 17 - Cardinal bounces back big from 69-17 loss to Texas.
Idaho 28, WSU 17 - A dropped pass and fumble help Vandals rally.