2001 Apple Cup: Did Someone Say COUG IT?

Rick Neuheisel had a stunned expression upon his face. The 2001 Apple Cup was about to kick off, and the Washington Huskies were more than halfway through the farewell ceremony for their seniors. Amid a sunshine-splashed Husky Stadium, the head official came over and threatened Neuheisel with a penalty for running late.

"Honest to goodness, the official came over and said, 'You've got to stop,'" Neuheisel said in 2001. "I had six seniors left. I said, 'You've got to be kidding me. Guys have given four and five years of blood, sweat and tears, and I'm going to stop introducing them? I can't believe you're going to do it (call a penalty), but if you have to do it, do it, because we're not stopping.'"

And so before the game had even begun, a 10-yard penalty was assessed against the home team. It was a harbinger of what was to be one of the most bizarre games in Apple Cup history. It was also a tale of two teams in the process of trading places. Traditional powerhouse Washington was a respectable 7-2, but was coming off a humiliating loss against Oregon State in Corvallis (which was also a sign of things to come). Washington State, however, was transitioning into un-chartered territory. A victory over the Huskies would give them a 10-1 record, and placement into a BCS bowl game. In the success-starved tradition of Cougar football, this game represented a chance to come in from the wheat fields of futility, and taste sweet success at the banquet table of the BCS.

WSU's high-powered offense quickly went to work. The unseasonably warm November weather seemed to play into the Cougars' favor, giving their vaunted spread offense the freedom to attack in any manner it desired. Wazzu soon found itself first and goal at the Washington five-yard line. With a packed Husky Stadium racked with tension and with a regional television audience looking on curiously, the timing was now ripe for Washington State to COUG IT. After all, there was so much riding on a season filled with immeasurable promise.

On both first and second down, WSU Coach Mike Price ran his tough running back Dave Minnich for negligible gains. On third down, as the Cougars huddled up, star receiver Nakoa McElreth muttered to quarterback Jason Gesser, "Throw me the ball. Give me a chance. Let me work on those guys."

But Price was suddenly enamored with pounding the ball off-tackle. Minnich took the handoff and muscled forward to the one-yard line. Now facing fourth and goal, the Cougar offense stayed on the field. As recognition of that fact began rippling through the crowd, Husky Stadium roared with rising anticipation as WSU broke huddle and approached the line of scrimmage. Gesser took the snap and handed off yet again to Minnich, who went airborne trying to leap over the pile of players in front of him. But Husky lineman Marcus Roberson went for Minnich's legs while linebacker Ben Mahdavi and safety Greg Carothers launched themselves airborne and smashed into Minnich's shoulder pads, denying Minnich access to the UW end zone and knocking him hard to the turf. WSU was DOA at the goal line. The Huskies jumped up in down in celebration. The Cougars trudged back to their sideline, led by the animated and visibly distraught McElrath.

Despite working from the high-risk shadow of their own goal line, and with WSU's defense attempting to stuff the run, the Huskies made it clear that receiver Reggie Williams would figure prominently in the game plan. QB Cody Pickett repeatedly dropped back looking for Williams, who was often guarded man-to-man by Cougar defender Marcus Trufant, who was not going to be denied his shot at Williams despite a cast on one of his arms. After gaining a first down on a throw to Williams, Pickett dropped back again and rifled a connecting throw to Williams up the left sideline that covered 58 yards. Then Pickett dropped back one more time and dropped a throw over the top to Williams, who made a leaping over-the-shoulder catch at the one-yard line near the orange pilon. On the next play, running back Rich Alexis plowed in for the score, and the Huskies were up 7-0.

The Huskies went up 10-7 after a 29-yard field goal by UW's John Anderson with nine seconds left before halftime. The ensuing kickoff went into the end zone, but to Price's dismay, returner Jason David brought it out, and got blasted by Husky Zach Tuiasosopo and fumbled. Washington place kicker John Anderson trotted onto the field, and booted a 35-yard field goal as time expired. Washington's lead was now 13-7. Reggie Williams had already amassed 9 catches for 186 yards and had caused two pass interference penalties. The Husky defense was finally playing with inspiration and toughness again.

And if the late Karen Carpenter were wearing crimson and gray and singing of WSU's propensity to COUG IT, she would have been crooning, "We've Only Just Begun."

To open the third quarter, WSU's Curtis Nettles ran toward the sideline to field the kickoff, but after catching it he lost his balance and stepped out of bounds at the five-yard line. Minnich fumbled on the next play and Washington's Wondame Davis recovered it at the one-yard line. Husky tailback Willie Hurst then took a handoff from Pickett and plunged across the goal line, extending Washington's lead to 19-7.

Later in that third quarter, the Husky defense found itself with its back to the wall. The Cougars had the ball with second-and-goal at the UW six-yard line. Gesser took the snap and went to handoff to Minnich, but Minnich had slipped in the backfield. In a panic, Gesser tried to scramble to his left but was thumped hard by Carothers, coughing up the football. The 'Helena Hitman' had struck again. As if in slow motion, the ball rolled backwards. 72,000 fans stood and roared. Madahvi pounced on it at the 21-yard line, thwarting the Cougar drive.

With equal parts desperation and determination, Washington State soon got the ball back and marched downfield again. They drove to the Husky five, enticed by the golden opportunity of a first-and-goal. But on the first play, Gesser was sacked for a three-yard loss. Then a false-start penalty moved the ball back to the thirteen yard line. On third down, Gesser pitched back to Minnich for an apparent toss sweep. But Minnich suddenly stopped and attempted a pass toward Nakoa McElrath in the end zone. But a blitzing Anthony Kelley hit Minnich as he released the football, and the wounded duck was easily intercepted by Husky Roc Alexander. It was WSU's fourth turnover in fifteen minutes, and the third time they had reached inside the Husky 10-yard line and failed to score.

"I should have eaten the ball," Minnich said later.

Throughout the fourth quarter, time and time again, a fuming Nakoa McElrath was shaking his head as the Cougars broke huddle. In the closing minutes of the game, and with Washington leading 26-7, McElrath finally tallied points with a 4-yard touchdown reception on a pass from Gesser. This, however, was a meaningless touchdown. As the clock ran out, the scoreboard read: HUSKIES 26, COUGARS 14. The Washington players were in high spirits as they caroused on the field. They were likely headed to the Holiday Bowl. The Cougars, meanwhile, having just been knocked out of the BCS picture, were headed to either the Seattle Bowl or the Sun Bowl. Neither this fact, nor that he wasn't thrown that much during the game, set well with McElrath after the game.

"Now we're coming back here and playing in a bowl game?" McElrath said. "That's not a bowl game. It's just another game. We knew we had to win and we didn't win and now we're going to wind up back here, probably.

"I understand we might get a ring or something like that, but it's nothing, nothing like where we were planning to go. To me it feels like we're back to square one. A 9-2 team should not be in the Seattle Bowl. Sun Bowl? Same thing."

Reporters noted to McElrath how he seemed to be upset throughout the game.

"We could have beaten them all day," he said. "Down the field, straight fades, or whatever. But we didn't do none of that until the fourth quarter, and I don't understand that. We needed to do the things we did to get here and we didn't do that. I don't know why we go away from the things we do best. When times got hard, the coaches should have known to put everybody on my shoulders. I feel like I can do things for the team that other people can't. For them not to look at me for three quarters, I get frustrated. I'm not a fourth-quarter genius. I just wanted the ball in the beginning of the game. A lot of the stuff we ran in practice we didn't run in the game, and that's another reason why players were frustrated. I was highly frustrated.

"I was shaking my head and I know some other people were," McElrath added. "But that's not on us. That's on the coach."

Word of McElrath's tirade quickly reached Cougar Coach Mike Price as he was being interviewed. Price's subsequent comments reflected it.

"I'm disgusted with myself," said Price. "If I had it to do over again, I might have thrown the ball (down near the goal line). Maybe not now, to him (McElrath), though. He is just frustrated like everybody else. You want a guy who wants the ball, but he doesn't need to express that to you people. He has one game left to grow up a little bit more, huh?"

Meanwhile, Washington Head Coach Rick Neuheisel lingered awhile on the field, soaking up the glory. At one point, with his face aglow, he looked up at the scoreboard with eyes full of glee. He pumped his fist into the air and smiled brightly toward the adoring crowd - before finally making his way off the field and disappearing into the tunnel.
Derek Johnson can be reached at derekjohnson1@verizon.net

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