Monday morning perspective

PULLMAN -- Let's start with the historic perspective: The Cougars' 1975 Apple Cup giveaway was child's play compared with Saturday's triple-overtime horror. Now let's move on to <b>Matt Kegel</b>: He didn't help matters, to be sure, but this was a team meltdown no matter how you slice it. So give the kid a break.

The fourth-year junior no doubt feels bad enough without the Cougar Nation piling on. Saturday will stay with him like a bad rash -- not just this week or this season, but for years. Just look at Nick Susoeff, an All-Coast performer for Babe Hollingbery during the legendary coach's final seasons in Pullman. In the fourth quarter of the 1942 game against the Huskies, what would have been the winning TD pass --- and, therefore, the ticket to Pasadena --- slipped through Susoeff's fingers in the end zone.

No matter that Susoeff was drapped with Husky defenders or that he had to leap and twist just to get his hands on the ball. It was labeled the "$100,000 miss" in deference to the amount Washington State would have received for playing in the Rose Bowl.

Susoeff went on to a stellar career with the San Francisco 49ers, but the notion that he and he alone cost the Cougars the Pacific Coast Conference championship was said to have haunted him until his dying day.

Old-timers remember the play as Susoeff's drop. Ask them who threw the pass --- an errant one, mind you --- and no two answers are the same. How maddeningly sad for Susoeff.

So let's step back for a minute and look at Saturday's meltdown. Then, just maybe, the blasting of Kegel will stop.

Foremost, of course, is that the Cougars still control their own destiny. The Apple Cup loss doesn't matter if they take care of business at UCLA on Dec. 7. Beat the Bruins and WSU is the Pac-10 champion for the second time in six years. Simple as that.

Second, let's not forget --- as one prescient message board poster noted Monday --- that Kegel didn't commit any of the ten penalties the Cougars were assessed on Saturday. Or miss that 36-yard field goal attempt in the first half or botch the hold on that field goal try just before halftime.

He didn't give up 169 yards to Reggie Williams and he didn't surrender six sacks. Or rough John Anderson. Or throw an interception on the first pass of the day to set up the Dawgs with a 7-0 lead. Or overthrow wide-open Devard Darling in the end zone in the first half. Or fail to run a pass route to beyond the first-down marker.

Most of all, Kegel wasn't tasked with blocking Kai Ellis or Ben Mahdavi or Marquis Cooper. The picture of the huddled officiating crew at game's end will be forever etched in our minds as the football version of the Supreme Court deciding who should be president not because of Kegel, but because of an offensive line that found itself overmatched most of the day.

The Cougars didn't get Kegeled.

There were no hanging dimples. No chads. No recount-interruptus.

WSU was Reggied. And Ellised. And Johnsoned (as in Terry, the Husky tackle who sent Jason Gesser to the sidelines in the fourth quarter). Mostly, though, the Cougars, collectively, were Themselved.

They, as a team, let this one slip away. They, as a team, failed to produce a single first down --- and but five net yards --- on the seven possessions after Gesser went down.

If body language could paint a thousand words, then the Cougars' demise was foretold in voluminous fashion. WSU's offense --- which consists of 11 players --- was a deer in the headlights of a Husky Humvee. Yes, Kegel was complicit. But he wasn't alone.

If just a fraction of the fight in Erik Coleman or the fury in Fred Shavies or the unabashed spirit of Mawuli Davis could have been transfused from the Cougar D to the Cougar O.

Then maybe, just maybe, this meltdown could have been stopped, the refs never in position to play like Chief Justice Rehnquist.

So now we lament opportunities lost, officials' rulings, Jermaine Green's groin pull and the specter of Gesser's right leg shelving him for the now-crucial UCLA game and perhaps even the bowl season.

Mike Price put on a brave face after the game, expressing confidence in Kegel and pride in what his team has accomplished and what he believes it will accomplish in the weeks ahead.

A sweet season has been torn asunder. Any loss is devastating when you're ranked No. 3 in the land and gunning for a national title shot. But losing to your biggest nemesis, on your home field, in a game you led by ten points with just more than four minutes remaining and the opposition pinned inside its own ten. That's enough to keep you awake at nights for years.

But there are second chances in life and the Cougars have a mighty big one coming up on Pearl Harbor Day. They have a chance to play again like the champions they've been most of the season. To make sure Matt Kegel's name is remembered more for the victory he orchestrated over USC in 2000 than the setback he had a hand in last week.

The Cougars have a second chance to ensure that this Apple Cup becomes little more than a footnote to a glorious Championship Season.

Sixty-two years ago this month, Nick Susoeff's Cougars --- and their fans --- would have relished such a shot at redemption.

It's time now for their children and grandchildren to rally 'round the proverbial flag. To keep the faith. Indeed, to relish the good fortune of being a Cougar fan in 2002.

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