WSU’s paper mismatch is a game-time no-show

IT WAS WASHINGTON STATE’S one significant Apple Cup advantage — at least on paper. But when the cleats hit the turf, the Cougars’ wide receivers didn't dominate their inexperienced counterparts during a 31-13 loss against Washington at Martin Stadium. In fact, it was the Huskies who proved to be far superior in that match-up Saturday.

WSU (3-9 overall, 2-7 Pac-12) needed its vaunted receiving corps to play up to its billing if the Cougars wanted to claim the 2014 Apple Cup. Instead, the receiving unit looked about as effective as its overmatched secondary. In a rivalry where eight of the previous 10 games were decided in the waning moments, the receivers never gave the Cougars an opportunity to succeed against UW (8-5, 4-5).

It started on WSU’s second drive with a 7-0 deficit. Redshirt freshman Luke Falk, who completed 27 of 49 passes for 355 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, drove the Cougars to UW’s 20-yard line, where he faced fourth-and-2. Behind strong protection, Falk lofted a pass the left side of the end zone, hitting senior Dom Williams in the hands.

Touchdown, Cougars? Nope. Incomplete.

That script played out throughout the night as the Cougars lost their fifth Apple Cup in six years. On the following drive, Falk bounced back and drove to the Huskies’ 32. Senior Vince Mayle, who holds WSU’s single-season receiving yards (1,483), caught a 39-yard pass earlier on the drive. But on third-and-5, he dropped a pass that hit him in the hands. Falk’s fourth-down pass intended for senior Isiah Myers was broken up by John Ross. It marked WSU’s third failed fourth-down conversion of the first quarter.

“We had a lot of drops,” WSU coach Mike Leach said during a postgame radio interview. “We moved the ball, but once our rhythm got broken we went stagnant.”

The Cougars’ defense kept the game within reach for as long as possible. Freshman safety Darius Lemora tipped Cyler Miles’ pass and senior linebacker Cyrus Coen intercepted it at the Huskies’ 24.

Sustained success proved elusive for WSU, though. The Cougars had an opportunity to tie the game at 7-7 late in the first half. Falk scrambled to evade pressure and found Mayle for a 20-yard completion. But safety Bubba Baker knocked the ball out and UW was awarded possession.

“Just the same thing as last week,” Falk said. “We just need to finish drives. We couldn’t be stopped all night — we stopped ourselves.”

Five plays later, Miles connected with Kasen Williams for a 6-yard touchdown to extend the Huskies’ lead to 14-0, 50 seconds before halftime. Despite outgaining UW 183-167 at the intermission, WSU faced a double-digit deficit.

It would only grow.

Dwayne Washington, who scored on a 51-yard run during the Huskies’ first drive of the game, needed just two plays after halftime to add his second explosive play. Washington scored on a 60-yard run. He finished with 135 yards on 16 carries.

WSU never recovered. After Joshua Perkins caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Miles to extend the Huskies’ lead to 31-0 with 12:30 left in the game, Fox Sports 1 broadcasters talked about the possibility of Leach being shutout for the first time in his 15-year head coaching career. That dubious distinction was avoided when the receiving corps finally emerged. Sophomore River Cracraft caught a 15-yard pass on third-and-20. That set up a 35-yard pass on fourth down from Falk to Williams that ensured WSU would not be held scoreless in the Apple Cup for the first time since 2009.

Falk later engineered a nine-play drive that culminated with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Cracraft. The score was set up when senior Isiah Myers caught a 20-yard pass to the Huskies’ 40 on fourth-and-17.

Those were the plays that set up wins at Utah and Oregon State earlier in the season. But there were not enough in the Apple Cup for the Cougars to avoid going winless in home conference games.

In a sense, it was a fitting end to the season. The year started with a defensive breakdown when senior cornerback Tracy Clark allowed Rutgers’ Leonte Carroo to get behind him for a 78-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in a 41-38 loss at CenturyLink Field. There were the breakdowns on special teams, including a pair of kickoff returns for touchdowns and a botched 19-yard field goal, during WSU’s 60-59 loss Oct. 4 against California. And then the Cougars capped the season with perhaps their worst offensive performance. They were outgained 437-376.

Defense. Special teams. Offense.

WSU never found any consistency between the units as it halved its 2013 win total of six.

“I thought we should’ve had a better season,” Leach said. “We were right on the threshold a lot and never got through.”

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