Two days later, where does meltdown rank?

NA NA NA, hey hey hey, goodbye. As Colorado drove down for what proved to be the winning score in Saturday's inexplicable outcome in Pullman, those words from the one-time chart-topper came ringing into my head.

In this same stadium 32 years earlier, as a Washington State freshman, I smiled as the WSU student body, as if on cue, broke into "na na na" when Cougar linebacker Scott Pelluer intercepted a Grayson Rogers pass with less than two minutes to play to seal what appeared to be a 22-21 WSU victory over the University of the Pacific.

The singing stopped when Cougar QB Samoa Samoa was pushed out of bounds on a third-down play. That's because Pacific had no time outs left and the Cougs just stopped the clock. While the reality was clear -- Pacific would have 1:16 left to drive 60 or 70 yards to get into field goal range to pull out the improbable win -- the consensus among the faithful was clear: the Cougs should hang on.

As the clock wound to zero on that sunny October day in 1980, Jim Council's 29-yard field goal sailed through the east uprights and the Cougs lost 24-22.

To this day, when I hear "na na na hey hey hey goodbye," I am instantly transported to the horror of losing to the Pacific Tigers.

But this loss to Colorado on Saturday was different. It was worse. Far worse.

In fact, after listening to the furious words Cougar fans were uttering Saturday on the walk out of Martin Stadium, and then tuning into the post-game show in the car, and later clicking on the CF.C message boards, it became clear the devastation of this one was bordering on epic.

My 14-year-old son Ryan, one of the most talkative kids this side of the Rockies, was rendered speechless for close to 20 minutes. My brother Steve, who has been coming to Cougar games since the mid-1960s, said he thought he'd seen everything until this one. My wife, a Husky, called to pass on her genuine condolences.

Yes, this one was different.

The last-second 18-17 loss to USC and Todd Marinovich in 1989 was heartbreaking. But USC was favored and we were proud of our team. The overtime loss at Notre Dame in 2003 was painful. But Notre Dame was favored and our team was a pure joy to watch in every way.

The 2002 and 2003 Apple Cups -- games the Cougars collectively led for all but about 100 seconds -- were excruciating. We were favored in both, but there was salve in '02 that we were still headed to the Rose Bowl, and in '03 that mid-game injuries to Matt Kegel and Scott Davis made all the difference. We were ticked off, but we loved those two teams.

And of course there's the 1975 Apple Cup in Seattle. Of all the games I've mentioned so far, it's the only one I wasn't in the stands to witness. I was a kid listening on the radio in Spokane, gleeful over a tough season being capped with a true butt-kicking of the Dawgs. The joy turned into sweaty-palmed disbelief as Bob Robertson carried us through the final two minutes.

That game is the closest blood relative of what we saw against Colorado on Saturday, because the game was basically over, the Cougs sporting a big fourth-quarter lead and the offense poised for another score deep in enemy territory.

But this one Saturday was different.

And here's why. Actually, it's several whys.

First, the Cougs were at home against a team many in the land considered one of the worst -- if not thee worst -- in the land. From sea to shining sea, the Buffs were viewed as an embarrassment to the game.

WSU was favored by 21.

Second, the Cougs were way ahead. The score was 31-14 when Connor Halliday and Teondray Caldwell drove the team to the Buff 19 yard-line with just more than 8 minutes left. The decision to pass up the field goal try to go for it on fourth down will hang over the Martin air for a long, long time.

Third, and this is the key point, the loss was devastating because everyone believed, and helped fuel, a preposterous level of expectation for the Cougs season.

Bill Moos fueled it. Radio pundits fueled it. Cougfan.com fueled it. Fans fueled it. En masse, we all fueled it.

After nearly a decade of woe, it's understandable, too. We wanted to believe. We NEEDED to believe.

And so we did.

This was to be the season where the long, dark road turned into Sunset Boulevard. This was to be the return to the post season. This was to be the year of gushing over the most prolific offense in the nation. Quarterback U would again be Quarterback U.

Teams on the rise, with a coach as accomplished as Mike Leach at the helm, do not squander giant leads to really bad teams. At home. In front of a mostly packed house. On a weekend when football legends Bud Roffler, Jack Fanning and Steve Ostermann are inducted into the WSU athletic hall of fame.

A loss to Colorado? Seriously? The idea seemed preposterous Saturday morning amid the high-octane tailgating.

In short, we weren't prepared for Saturday's meltdown. An entire off-season of heightened expectations came crashing down in the final minutes on Saturday.

Apparently Coach Leach isn't the Messiah, after all.

Nobody is, of course, but we all entertained the notion of Divine origins when he descended on Pullman from the bright star in the Key West sky back in December.

So just how devastating a loss was it on Saturday?

Several friends and acquaintances, wondering if their distraught was an overreaction, have asked me that.

At this moment in time, there's no getting around it. For pure psychological damage, this loss easily ranks in the top five of the last 50 years and perhaps deserves a No. 1 or No. 2 slot.

Though given the gnawing power, a decade after the fact, of the "backwards forward pass" Apple Cup of 2002, it's difficult to imagine a loss to Colorado withstanding that test of durability.

And therein sits the truest answer to how brutal this loss really is: It's too early to tell.

If the Cougars use this setback as the proverbial wake-up call to rectify their season, history will treat the Colorado game not as the collapse of the crimson psyche but as the turning point of the program. The old "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" thing.

Maybe, come the holidays, Mike Leach will be angling for Kelly Clarkson to perform at halftime of the Cougs' bowl game.

Stand a little taller … Thanks to you I've got a new thing started … You didn't think that I'd come back, I'd come back swinging, You tried to break me, but you see …

How I'd love to have those words ringing in my ears come bowl season. For now, however, even a little "na na na hey hey hey goodbye" wouldn't be so bad after Saturday's punch in the gut.

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