With three minutes remaining, Michael Gottlieb stood on the sideline and let the concept of victory, a mere fantasy all season, swirl inside...

PULLMAN — With three minutes remaining, Michael Gottlieb stood on the sideline and let the concept of victory, a mere fantasy all season, swirl inside of him. He shook with joy. He hogtied his tears.

Washington was actually about to win a football game. After five years, two coaching ousters and zero 2008 victories, this was the last real chance at glory the senior tight end had left, one final opportunity to thump rival Washington State and win our embarrassing state chump-ionship.

“I started to get choked up,” Gottlieb said. “I thought we had it.”

About an hour later, he slumped over, head in his hands, as his hope turned into the biggest letdown of all.

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Cougars 16, Huskies 13. In double overtime.

Losses 11, wins 0. Imperfection intact.

“My heart just sank,” Gottlieb said.

While Nico Grasu’s winning 37-yard field goal sailed through the air, Gottlieb couldn’t look. When he lifted his head, students in the Martin Stadium crowd were rushing the field. It should be a violation of the Field Rushing Commandments — thou shalt not commit excessive celebrations of beating winless teams — but they did it anyway.

It turns out that Washington State can’t be considered among the worst teams in the history of college football. The Cougars can’t even claim being the most pitiful in their own state. The Huskies now carry the torch of humiliation as they stumble toward an 0-12 season.

That record is inevitable. It’ll be a miracle if the Huskies make it to California in two weeks, let alone play a competitive game. They’ve turned their season into a game of limbo, and as the lyrics asking “How low can you go?” blare in the background, they keep proving their ineptitude is more flexible than Gumby.

“We just lost to the Cougars,” linebacker Donald Butler said, sounding disgusted, surprised and resigned all at once.

Beyond that, Butler had trouble forming sentences.

“It, it, it … I’m speechless,” he said.

The Huskies were guilty of self-robbery Saturday. They stopped the Cougars on fourth down with 2:02 remaining and still lost. They missed two potential game-clinching field goals in the fourth quarter, one by Ryan Perkins and the other by Jared Ballman, and Perkins missed another in overtime. They turned meek amid the late-game pressure, and in the end, the Cougars looked more daring and played with more purpose.

The shame, personified: Washington State freshman Jared Karstetter slipped past cornerback Quinton Richardson and safety Tripper Johnson for a 48-yard reception late in regulation that allowed the Cougars to tie the game.

Richardson made the tackle, the same guy who hurt his arm while celebrating with some of his teammates after that fourth-down stop earlier in the quarter.

Lost in excitement, Richardson gyrated before being toppled by three giddy teammates. After all their listless performances, the Huskies showed some swagger in this game — and it wound up making them look foolish.

“It just feels like a nightmare,” cornerback Mesphin Forrester said.

Asked what he told his team afterward, outgoing coach Tyrone Willingham said tersely, “Let’s go home.”

During the game, Willingham was more animated than he had been all season, yelling and encouraging, looking desperate to get one W before returning to the NCAA unemployment line.

It seemed like he wouldn’t be denied.

The Huskies imposed their physical will and rushed for 224 yards. They only had to finish a solid effort.

Which, of course, Willingham’s teams have failed to do at Washington.

This collapse will go down as the most painful. It basically assures a zero in the win column. It will hinder the coach’s ability to find a new job. It will put the Huskies at maximum humility as they search for a new coach.

Willingham refuses to accept complete responsibility for this disaster, however.

“Obviously, if you’re the head coach at this time, you take responsibility for what’s going on,” he said. “But it should also be noted, the day that I arrived, what the state of the program was. I take responsibility for where we’re at, but there’s also a process.”

In other words, blame me, but remember to blame former coach Keith Gilbertson and maybe even Rick Neuheisel, too. This is coming from the same coach who was perturbed that The Seattle Times’ “Victories and Ruins” series covered the past.

Sure, Willingham has a point when acknowledging he inherited a 1-10 team. But he cannot run from, or even use the past to explain, his 0-11 record four years later. The Huskies may have advanced in terms of discipline and order during Willingham’s tenure, but they’ve clearly become a worse product on the field.

They’re the worst team in the Football Bowl Subdivision. They’re owners of a 13-game losing streak, the nation’s longest. They’re more pathetic than the Cougars, who normally hand out 50-point blowouts like fliers.

After the 46th loss of his UW career, Gottlieb stood before the media and succumbed to the concept of powerlessness.

“It’s just been one mistake after another,” he said of this season.

“I guess, maybe, it just wasn’t meant to be.”

He choked on his tears again. This time, however, there was nothing left to change his mood.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com