Washington State seemed finished, trailing 28-10, near the end of a disappointing season. Then a funny thing happened. The Cougars tied the Huskies, then beat them in overtime, the biggest comeback in the history of the Apple Cup.
PULLMAN — Mike Leach, the embattled Washington State football coach, told USA Today last week the offseason for his team “would be one for the ages.”
Saturday, the Cougars launched that siege with an Apple Cup for the ages.
“You don’t get very many of those feelings in life,” said WSU linebacker Logan Mayes. “That was a wedding, first-child-born kind of feeling.”
In a season pocked with disappointment and controversy and self-examination — and an eight-game losing streak — somehow the Cougars found a rallying point from the deepest abyss and dug out a 31-28 overtime victory over Washington.
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Ultimately, maybe it was the Huskies who brought them together.
If you were a Washington State fan, you were ready for the season to be over, even before the finale. Then the Cougars klutzed through a forgettable third quarter and fell behind 28-10. They were going to finish their season of self-immolation with a blowout loss to their hated rival, which was going to reinforce the gap between the programs.
And then a funny thing happened. WSU decided it wasn’t quite ready for the season to be done. And out popped a victory from seemingly the most dire of circumstances.
“It was a feeling I’ll never forget,” said quarterback Jeff Tuel, probably playing his last game as a Cougar, “seeing the ball go through the uprights.”
Apparently, Andrew Furney’s winning field goal ranked up there for WSU fans as well, thousands of whom poured onto the field to luxuriate in the victory. They (and the UW rooters there) had already acquitted themselves well, showing up to the tune of about 30,000 on a date that defined inconvenience.
Lo and behold, they saw one of the all-timers, the biggest comeback in the history of the rivalry. I’ve witnessed maybe 30 Apple Cups, and for all the great quarterbacks that have visited the rivalry, and all the riveting finishes, comebacks haven’t been a real staple of the series, once you get past the two-touchdowns-late, Spider Gaines lightning for Washington in 1975.
“It’s a Cougar family here,” WSU president Elson Floyd said over a microphone, preaching the crimson gospel to the masses on the field, “and we kicked the Huskies out of the place!”
Just 20 days earlier, WSU got romped on at Utah, 49-6, Leach talked about offensive linemen who sometimes played with an effort “bordering on cowardice” and then he marched those guys and his defensive linemen out to explain themselves to the media. It was a stark, humiliating moment.
But on this overcast, cool Palouse day, it was those two fronts that had a key part in the victory, especially the defense. The Cougars pressured Keith Price and sacked him three times, penetrated with regularity, and stunted the UW offense to the tune of just 269 total yards.
“Thought the defensive line played really (well),” Leach said. “They knocked their quarterback around, did a really good job on the running backs, and particularly in big situations, really set the tone.”
WSU’s offensive line was hardly overwhelming. But it was stout enough to render the UW pass rush only decent, not devastating, as Tuel was sacked four times. He was able to throw for 350 yards even as the Cougars had scant running game except at the goal line, where Carl Winston plunged for three touchdowns.
Asked if this felt like redemption, junior guard John Fullington said, “It definitely felt nice; I hadn’t even thought about that yet. It definitely felt nice as an O-lineman, and a Cougar overall today.”
It all started so innocently. The Cougars quit turning the ball over in the fourth quarter, and drove for a touchdown. Then Tuel unspooled a wacky 29-yard pass to Isiah Myers when the quarterback was all but caged by the Huskies in the backfield, and when they inadvertently banged him on the head — one of their 18 penalties — WSU was in business inside the UW 10-yard line.
What’s it all mean for WSU? The season has been wracked by a series of firestorms, and there’s still no official verdict on the Marquess Wilson abuse charges. It’s debatable whether there’s total buy-in for Leach on the roster.
“Some of this is easier than we’ve been making it,” insisted Leach.
For about an hour, they made it look easy. Whether it alters the trajectory of the program, nobody knows. Whether they authored a bit of preposterous Apple Cup history: Book it.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org