Huskies Provide WSU Lifeline

PULLMAN - It's a good thing the Washington Huskies have more than 24 hours to get over their 31-28 loss to Washington State Friday in the 105th Apple Cup, because this was the kind of game that can have long-term implications for at least one of the programs involved. But for whom?

"This one is going to sting, I'll be honest," Washington Head Coach Steve Sarkisian said after the loss. "When you have a loss like this in a game like this - in a rivalry game - this will sting and this will hurt, for probably more than a day, quite honestly."

It was hard for the history major in me not to think about that game at Autzen Stadium 18 years ago when the Huskies had things well in hand before Kenny Wheaton suddenly changed Oregon Football forever. When Andrew Furney made a 27-yard field goal in overtime to unleash a tidal wave of crimson and gray down onto the Martin Stadium field on Friday, it was even tougher to drain out the echoes of 'Wheaton's gonna score!' reverberating in my head.

This is how lopsided the 105th Apple Cup was in Washington's favor before The Opening kickoff: Until that point Washington State had not won a single Pac-12 game in 2012; they had given up over 34 points a game in league while scoring an average of less than 20. This Apple Cup was a game where UW was a double-digit road favorite, the first time that's happened in 20 years. That was the infamous 'Snow Bowl', where Drew Bledsoe led No. 25 Washington State to an improbable 42-23 win over then No. 5 Washington.

So was it a sign that Bledsoe was honored Friday by WSU for being inducted in the state's Sports Hall of Fame? Was there some leftover Snow Bowl mojo that the Cougars fed off of like purple and gold roadkill?

Only in an Apple Cup could the Huskies, who have been bad enough with penalties all season long, to tie an all-time record for penalties with 18 - and still have the game well in hand with a quarter to go. Arguably the hardest penalty to swallow was a false start on a 3rd and 1 with less than a minute left and Washington well within field goal distance to win the game.

It was the exact same play that was called on Stanford and Sarkisian said after the game that he thought the exact same thing had happened to Washington State when two of their players moved into the neutral zone.

But in the immortal words of Lee Corso - not so fast, my friends. Instead a penalty was seemingly called on Price for either a head bob or cadence issue - or something - that caused the Cougars to jump offside.

"Eighteen is a ridiculous number of penalties," Sarkisian said afterward. "Obviously the big one there at the end on the third-and-one."

Officially, the penalty was charged to Micah Hatchie, who stumbled out of the quick huddle to set up the attempt to lure WSU off. But post-game, Sarkisian said he was told by the officials that Price was the one who caused the penalty.

Such vague miscommunication by the Pac-12 officials seems par for the course - but with the game on the line it's awfully strange to not have a straight answer from those in charge. But it goes to a bigger point, one that has become cliche in big rivalries like the Apple Cup - you can throw out the records and everything else, because these games feast on the bizarre.

At the end of the day, it's a really bad loss for Washington, a team that had their rivals by the throats up 18 with 15 minutes left to play, only to let them off the mat. Not only that, but they allowed the Cougars a couple free shots to the jewels for good measure. And that's the biggest takeaway from the game; the Huskies just gave WSU life.

With a win, Washington could have marched onward and upward, knowing that the Cougars were so far in the rearview mirror that it would take years for them to ever compete with the Huskies. With the loss, they've ensured themselves a much poorer bowl game - for starters - as well as an off-season full of second-guessing, from players, coaches and fans alike. But most importantly, they resuscitated a Washington State program that was already on life support. Now they have hope.

This game couldn't have been set up as an easier win for Washington. Washington State's best players - Marquess Wilson and Travis Long - didn't play. The Cougar campus was already in turmoil amongst Wilson's accusations of physical and mental abuse aimed squarely at the first-year WSU coaches, including head coach Mike Leach. The Huskies had a chance to send WSU hurtling into a prolonged spiral of uncertainty and potential scandal by delivering a message; we are the top Dawgs in the State of Washington.

"I'm really proud of the guys," Leach would say after the game with an answer that eerily echoed a few of Sarkisian's post-game comments this year. "I think a lot of folks had counted us out and our team rose up. We had some tough moments but we fought through it. I'm proud of our resiliency."

Up 28-10 going into the fourth quarter, that message had almost reached its destination. Almost. Then it unraveled in a sea of yellow. In both of Washington State's fourth-quarter touchdown drives, the Huskies had three 15-yard penalty calls in each. And the Cougars were able to narrow UW's lead to three after the Huskies' Marcus Peters was flagged for pass interference that allowed the ball to be moved up two yards. WSU scored the conversion on the next play.

"The problem is that you have to trust your technique, do what you've been doing for however many weeks we've been doing and execute when things get tight," UW Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox said post-game. "And when it's a third down, we cant get a pass interference, first down, the quarterback is scrambling, you have him for a sack, we got to get him on the ground, it can't turn into a 60 yard play, and tack on 15 more and it's first and goal. Those things kill you."

So while Washington is dying a thousand deaths on the inside, the state is once again up for grabs. And for a UW program in its fourth year under Sarkisian, that's unacceptable. Heck, it was under Sark's watch in his very first year at UW when the Huskies blanked WSU by 30.

And this year really should not have been any different.

The residue of this loss has become way too familiar; while players and coaches search for reasons why they folded like cheap lawn chairs in the moments they had normally handled well during the season, the fans will queue up and look for heads to roll.

It was Keith Price's fault; no, it was Sark's for not running Bishop Sankey enough; it was the defense for creating so many personal foul and pass interference calls; it was the officials' fault for ruining a perfectly good Apple Cup. Place the blame wherever you like, but ultimately the lasting effects of this loss won't truly be felt until Washington's bowl game.

Either way, the Cougars have a pulse now. For that they have Washington to thank. The funny thing is, Washington State acted like the poised team, the one skilled on taking what the other team was giving them. With the game on the line Furney buried a 45-yard field goal with two minutes left to tie the game and send the Martin Stadium faithful into raptures. The kick would have been good from 60.

Coons, on the other hand, was working against the wind, the crowd, and the ghost of 1982's Apple Cup when his kick was blocked to the right and never had a chance, even though he's been solid for most of the year.

"It didn't look like he struck the ball very well at all," Sarkisian said.

John Anderson's heroic 2002 performance seemed light years away in that instant.

Will Washington State use the upset as a springboard to success under Leach? Time will tell. But with the most-penalized team ever at Washington, Steve Sarkisian most definitely has to go back to the drawing board and figure out why his teams can't play clean, smart football.

"What else are you gonna do?" said Wilcox. "You can sit here and bury your head in the sand and woe is me - or you can get back up and fight again and go to work tomorrow."

The ghosts of Apple Cups past will not allow a meltdown like this to go unpunished. Even Don James had these games, as dumbfounding as that may seem right now. Sarkisian may reach great heights as a head coach, but on this day he will look back with a mix of frustration, anger and bewilderment with his staff and team, wondering how it could all go so wrong so fast.


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