When you strip away all the fervor and froufrou from Friday’s annual Apple Cup, there wasn’t a lot to be gained by either side. No, really.
Nobody needed to preserve a chance for the Rose Bowl. Nobody needed to get bowl-eligible. So if you buy the idea that Washington State is likely headed to the postseason anyway, and that Washington wasn’t going to get out of the lower Pac-12 bowl pecking order, the real issue at Husky Stadium was what UW might lose, not what it might gain.
The Cougars saw to it that the matter was in doubt until the final 5:26, when they stood 81 yards away from the go-ahead touchdown and a possible victory that would have cast all sorts of aspersions on where Washington is going and why it can’t shake its persistent antagonist from the other side of the state.
But Greg Ducre intercepted Connor Halliday, the Huskies punched in the clinching touchdown, and Purple Nation could exhale, 27-17.
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“It was a game sliced very thin,” said Mike Leach, the WSU coach.
That means it was hanging in the balance, subject to an adjustment here or a break there. Or perhaps some better clock management by the Cougars.
They soldiered back from a field-goal deficit to take a 10-3 lead with a productive second quarter, and with seven seconds left, faced third-and-20 at the UW 35, with reliable kicker Andrew Furney waiting the call.
Leach decided on another play. The concept was fine, the execution lamentable. Halliday looked for the quick “out” pattern, and when it wasn’t there, instead of dumping the ball incomplete, looked for an alternate receiver and got sacked, depriving WSU of a possible two-score advantage at half, which would have really created some tight jaws on the other sideline.
Asked if, in retrospect, he wished he’d simply sent on the field-goal team on third down, Leach said brusquely, “I don’t have any retrospects.”
Not only were the Cougars without retrospects, they were short on timeouts, too, spending them like an inmate on a conjugal pass — two in the first nine minutes of the second half. Leach was no more transparent on that issue either, saying defiantly it was “because we thought we wanted to use timeouts early in both halves.”
It would prove instrumental for the Huskies that they spurned scores on the two WSU drives just before and after halftime that carried inside UW territory. And then the Huskies, on third-and-5 on their first drive of the second half, hit a 40-yard screen pass to Bishop Sankey to ignite the tying drive.
“That was a huge play for them,” said Leach. “If we’d kept them pinned back there, it was going to increase the pressure on them.”
The quarterbacks? Depended on when you watched them. Washington’s Keith Price was skittish for a long time, before the Huskies decided the better part of wisdom was simply handing the ball off to Sankey, of whom WSU linebacker Darryl Monroe said grudgingly, “He’s a decent running back. We’ve played better. A lot of what he accomplished, we gave him.”
Halliday was terrific on WSU’s two touchdown drives, well short of that at crunchtime. And visibly reaming out senior center Elliott Bosch on some snap-count confusion early in the fourth quarter wasn’t his finest hour.
“I called one snap count, and I think he thought he heard another,” Halliday said. “So I wasn’t ready for the ball when it was snapped. I was going to check into another play there, so we ended up with a bad run play.”
Moral victories aren’t the currency of the Apple Cup, but in two seasons under Leach, WSU has a victory and the knowledge it at least made the Huskies sweat Friday.
“Not that big” is how WSU safety Deone Bucannon labeled the difference in the programs.
Meanwhile, we can’t know for days if there’s collateral damage to WSU’s bowl chances.
Athletic director Bill Moos said early in the week on his radio show, “I’m not going to promise a bowl game, but I’ve been around this business a long time and I can tell our fans, they need to get prepared to get tickets.”
Said Leach, “I mean, there’s no question we ought to go to a bowl game.”
Somebody else will decide that, of course, after a day when the Huskies, who had the most to lose, had the least bad outcome.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org