COMMENTARY: Reflections on a bitter pill

A FIRST DOWN, friendly crowd, intensity rising, 80 yards to go but 2:18 to work with. It took only 65 seconds for Washington State to bow down for the final time. How it ended not only hurt, it probably dissolved the notion that the best team lost. The best team doesn't let its QB go down twice in the final series, doesn't give up its QB to a defense that rushes three and drops eight.

Some final reflections, then, before putting this heartbreaker to bed.


Looking back over the tape, it's midway through the second quarter in Martin Stadium and the Cougars are stuffing the run and dodging the soap bubbles the Huskies call forward passes. Suddenly Washington State decides to gamble. Bring the house. Check that. Some teams bring the house. The Cougs decide to bring the whole neighborhood. Linemen loop. Linebackers crash. Safeties sell out. All that's lacking are the shrillest refrain from a Wagnerian opera.

Suddenly the WSU secondary looks like downtown Wilbur on the eve of the state tournament. Nobody Is Home. A Husky receiver from Puyallup named Cody Ellis slides by Coug corner Tyron Brackenridge and with some seriously sure hands rescues a football dropping in mid-flight like an overweight turkey. Ellis scoops the ball off his shoe tips, stares into the Grand Canyon that is the open space between him and the post and turns a harmless slant into Apple Cup lore. It's a 64-yard TD pass and the game is tied. It's only the second quarter but it's a preview of all that follows.

The Cougars will go on to do it the old-fashioned way -- driving, plotting, executing, sweating, scoring -- only to have the Huskies gobble it all back in big bites. A blocked punt, a kick return, a dagger-to-the-liver pass to a secret weapon named Marcel Reece who is equal parts tight end, wide receiver and double-semi.

University of Willingham hasn't scripted a big play for a couple of months and all of a sudden he and his staff are a bunch of Neal Simons, churning out big play after big play. The Cougars by game's end looked plain worn out. Twelve straight gameday Saturdays without a break is simply too much football. Not even NFL teams go 12 without a break.

WSU quarterback Alex Brink has absorbed a ton of punishment over the last three months. A guy hasn't taken that many hits since David Crosby was living it up in the '60s, on his way to prison. Brink may regard this Apple Cup in much the the same fuzzy way.

The Cougar defense with four down linemen, a look that probably should have been used more, stopped the Huskies on a key fourth down from midfield. The ball and the season was turned back to the offense with that 2:18 to work with, not as much time as before the rules changes this season, but still more than adequate. After notching a couple of big first downs, the Cougars, down 35-32, had reached their 42 with a minute and a half left. Plenty of time. Plenty for a team that protects.

Brink went down on second down, when UW's Chris Stevens came swooping down. The Cougars were making the Husky D-line suddenly look like the Fearsome Foursome and the Purple People Eaters and the nightmare of Steve Entman unleashed all over again. On fourth and long, with the Huskies rushing only three, a defensive end slipped by Coug left tackle Bobby Bird and the season ended with Brink doing a bang-up impression of a sack of potatoes.

Yet before we pile on again, let's review Washington's 77-yard TD romp, the one where Louis Rankin slides outside and goes the distance. The killer. Eric Frampton said after the game everybody on defense was out of position on the play. Another look shows he wasn't far off, although corner Don Turner, the last line of defense, was shoved in the back right in front of the official but it apparently wasn't enough to throw the flag. Didn't matter. It was just one more big play in a night of Husky big plays. Rankin was gone. Trent from the middle gave chase but there is no way an inside or outsized linebacker, will beat a running back, even a purple and gold one.

By then, Willingham had already trotted out his secret weapon, Reece, from that famous football factory, El Camino Community College. Reece hadn't caught a pass in six weeks, and that might include practice. But there it was again. The Cougars blitz, with the job of tailing Reece falling to Cory Evans. The Texas linebacker has had his moments this season in the 3-4, but this is a bad match.

So now we are left to count, with one hand of course, the bowls that might consider inviting a 6-6 Washington State team that has given up a couple of gazillion points in its last three games. My Cougar friends don't care, not right now. They are wounded. One called in depressed. Another threatened to cancel season tickets, cut off contributions to the WSU athletic foundation and swear off gambling on football and drinking to excess. That's going a little too far. But it's going to be a long 51 weeks until next year's Apple Cup.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Weaver has been following and/or covering the Cougars for the better part of 30 years. For the second straight season, the former Spokesman-Review columnist is bringing his unique insights to readers every week.

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