Blowing an 18-point lead in the final 11 minutes, the Huskies’ 31-28 defeat helped revive a Cougars’ program that couldn’t help itself. And 18 penalties?! What the . . .
In Apple Cup Church, this one will be celebrated with hymns and genuflections when Cougars come to worship. When the Huskies come, they will slink into the dark confessional booth and say, “Father, we were really dumb.”
Ahead 28-10 with 11 minutes left, the Huskies, West Side big-timers that they were with the 7-4 record and four-game win streak, seemed certain they knew the Washington State Cougars, 14-point underdogs and winless in conference, were dead.
Why not? Their own coach, Mike Leach, earlier in the year called them zombies and empty corpses.
That’s one thing about college football: You can be partly dead. Not completely dead.
You know. Like the Huskies are now, and for will be quite some time.
“It’s not going to go away quick,” said Huskies defensive back Justin Glenn, the Huskies safety, among the many benumbed wearing purple.
Hard to know whether the fact of the 31-28 overtime loss in Pullman Friday afternoon was worse than the manner. But once the school-record-tying 18 penalties are considered, it can be said with some certainty that the epic embarrassment was self-inflicted.
“Really disappointing,” said UW coach Steve Sarkisian, who lost for the first time in four Apple Cups. “We have a locker room that’s very down. We wanted this game for a lot of reasons. The (four-game win) streak. The rivalry. The (finale) for seniors.
“It will take more than 24 hours to get over this. This one hurts.”
The Cougars had lost eight in a row, were winless in the Pac-12, mired in controversy that prompted an investigation into Leach’s handling of players, and statistically one of the worst teams in the country. They were missing their best player on defense (LB Travis Long, knee) and arguably their two best players on offense (WR Marquess Wilson, quit; Connor Halliday, concussion) and yet ran off 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and OT to shock the Huskies, as only a low-rent operation can when it whips the crew that fancies itself penthouse-worthy.
Relative to the expectations built with the hire of Leach, who was very successful over 10 years at Texas Tech, the Cougars season was a colossal flop. Until about 4:30 Friday afternoon at Martin Stadium, in front of 30,544 witnesses, when it became a stupendous success. Meanwhile, the momentum Sarkisian built with four consecutive conference wins came to such a hard stop the Huskies were bruised from hitting the inside of the windshield.
That’s how rivalries work.
The Huskies are 7-5 and will go to a bowl, albeit the bottom-tier variety, probably to the Kraft Bowl in San Francisco or the New Mexico Bowl, although with potentially four 7-5 teams, the Pac-12′s seven bowl tie-ups may not have room for Washington. The 3-9 Cougars are going nowhere, but now it won’t feel like it. The Huskies let the Cougars feel like they are going somewhere, which ultimately will be, from Washington’s perspective, the biggest mistake made on a day of cascading mistakes: They turned around the Cougars program fortunes when even the Cougars themselves could not.
“I’m sick, quite honestly,” Sarkisian said on KJR radio. “Our team is sick. When you don’t finish at the end of games and the other team does, that’s what happens.”
On offense, defense and special teams, the Huskies had critical misfires followed by calamitous gaffes. The 129 yards in penalties festers like leprosy on the stats page. But it was a defensive letdown that probably provoked the biggest gag reflex in Sarkisian — as well as the biggest exultation for WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel, who deserves to have a statue of his guts somewhere on the Martin Stadium tarmac.
Down 28-17 early in the fourth quarter, Tuel dropped back on third down and was immediately beseiged, as was typical for a team that gave up the third-most sacks in the nation entering the game.
Hit, spun around and knocked off balance, Tuel somehow escaped to throw a 29-yard pass to Isiah Myers, which set up a touchdown drive and two-point conversion that cut the lead to 28-25 with 7:26 left. A potential sack of 15 yards or more ended up a huge WSU play because the defense didn’t finish.
“We had him sacked, a loss of 20, (Tuel) makes a heck of a play, and it looked like we kinda stopped,” Sarkisian said. “They hit the big gainer got crowd going again.”
After a Washington 3-and-out, the Cougars drove down to kick the game-tying, 45-yard field goal with 1:59 left. Two minutes later, when the Huskies’ Travis Coons missed the game-winning 36-yard attempt (wide right, for Huskies fans who remember similar pain from kicker Chuck Nelson in the 1982 Apple Cup loss), the Huskies moved into overtime and committed their third epic misdeed of the late going.
On the first play, quarterback Keith Price, who for some reason was attempting to pass against one of the nation’s worst rush defenses, was in mid-sack by Logan Mayes,when he lofted the worst pass of his career, a weak floater that fell into the hands of lumbering D-lineman Toni Pole, who preposterously took it 65 yards before being dragged down at the 5-yard line by Cody Bruns.
Bruns’ noble act merely postponed the inevitable. OT rules mandated that the Cougars take the ball on a fresh possession at the 25. After picking up 15 yards, Andrew Furney kicked the game winner from 27 yards.
Delirium ensued. The crimson-clad poured down on the field to complete the mockery of the Huskies and the revival of the Cougars.
The Huskies, who committed 66 penalties over the last six games and had a record 106 for the season, may have been the most wildly inconsistent team in the BCS. Fortunately for them, they get an extra 15 practices provided by the bowl to sort out how they can be so foolish at times.
“Next week is supposed to be a recruiting week for me, but I’m staying off the road with other coaches to do some self-scouting,” Sarkisian said, “partly to figure out how and why these penalties are occurring. Are we asking our guys too do too much? That could be part of the problem.
“Whatever it is, we’re going to address it.”
Partisanship aside, this is the kind of game that makes college football such an entertainment value that billions are paid to telecast this theater nationally, and why football programs tend to run their universities.
But if you’re a Husky partisan, the amusement was minimal. A nationally televised choke against the cross-state rival is not, as Sarkisian said early in the year, taking the next step.