In 2002, the Huskies beat Washington State 29-26 in Pullman in triple overtime, ending the Cougars' national-title hopes. The game was the last for Mike Price at WSU and Rick Neuheisel at Washington.
When the Washington State Cougars and Washington Huskies meet Friday in Pullman, they will do so exactly 10 years after the wildest, longest and maybe most controversial game in the 112-year history of the Apple Cup.
“Thanks for bringing it up,” Jason Gesser said with a sarcastic laugh. He was the Cougars’ quarterback in 2002. “I’ve tried to block it out of my mind.”
But anyone who saw it will never forget Washington’s 29-26 triple overtime victory. It began under overcast late-afternoon skies, WSU still harboring national-title dreams. It ended in darkness 4 hours and 7 minutes later, players from both sides mostly ducking their heads to escape a hail of bottles after the game’s frantic ending had elicited high emotion.
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“I remember doing a TV interview after the game and the cameraman got hit by an apple,” said the game’s hero, UW kicker John Anderson, who forced overtime with a field goal with 15 seconds left and then hit three more in OT to lift the Huskies to an improbable victory.
The game, though, might be best recalled for the phrase “backward pass.” That’s the call referee Gordon Riese ultimately made on WSU’s possession in the third overtime, when backup quarterback Matt Kegel’s attempt of a screen pass was batted into the air and recovered on the ground by Washington defensive end Kai Ellis.
“Absolutely,” Rick Neuheisel said with a laugh, when asked if it still looks like a backward pass 10 years later. “Never a doubt in my mind.”
Neuheisel was the Huskies’ coach. The WSU coach, Mike Price, has a different memory. “BS call,” Price said. “I mean, c’mon, to make a call like that to make a difference in the game like that?”
The game was the last Apple Cup in which both teams entered with winning records. Since then, only four times has even one team had a winning record, including the game this year, with UW at 7-4.
The 2002 game also marked the last time either team was playing with the knowledge that a victory would guarantee a Rose Bowl spot (something that couldn’t happen now with the Pac-12 title game). And it also proved to be the last Apple Cup for Price, who a few weeks later would take a job at Alabama; and for Neuheisel, who would be fired the following summer for lying about his participation in a March Madness pool.
Nobody knew any of that, though, when the game kicked off at 3:42 p.m. on Nov. 23.
What the Cougars knew was that they were 9-1 overall, 6-0 in Pac-10 play, and ranked No. 3. A victory in the Apple Cup would clinch the Rose Bowl and keep alive hopes of getting into the national-title game.
“You can’t imagine having more on the line for them,” said Neuheisel, now a Pac-12 Networks analyst. “I remember seeing all the roses wrapped up as we were walking onto the field and I just said, ‘Maybe not so fast.’ “
Washington entered the game 6-5, a record that was disappointing. Washington had been selected behind the Cougars in the Pac-10 preseason media poll — the only time the two state schools have been 1-2 — but had meandered through the first three-quarters of the season at 4-5 before Neuheisel said his team’s new goal was to sweep its last three games against Oregon State, Oregon and WSU and win what he coined the “Northwest Championship.”
Washington had two-thirds of that title in hand as it headed to Pullman.
In one of the many oddities of the game, Anderson, a senior, missed his first three field goals — from 50, 51 and 34 yards — before making his last five.
“I just remember how disappointed I was in myself and I thought if that was going to be my last regular season, I just wanted to be sure if I got an opportunity to make a fourth one I was going to make it,” said Anderson, now living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he works in his family’s self-storage business. “I wasn’t going to be the reason we lost that game.”
WSU led 17-10 early in the fourth quarter when what many regard as the turning point arrived. Gesser — who shared Pac-10 player of the year honors with Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer of USC — rolled to his right, was tackled for a 16-yard loss by Terry “Tank” Johnson, and knocked out of the game.
“The way he pulled me down, my leg got folded back and it was awkward and I heard a bunch of popping in my ankle and knee, and that was it,” Gesser said.
Washington scored on a drive that featured a 48-yard pass from Cody Pickett to Reggie Williams, who caught it over Marcus Trufant in a delicious matchup of future first-round draft choices. That cut WSU’s lead to 20-17 with 3:13 left.
On WSU’s next possession, a pass by Kegel was intercepted at the 35 by future NBA first-round draft choice Nate Robinson, playing his only season of football for the Huskies. WSU held, but Anderson booted a 27-yarder to tie it with 15 seconds left.
Anderson and Drew Dunning took turns making field goals in the first two overtimes. Anderson’s third field goal of OT made it 29-26.
On the first play of WSU’s drive in the third OT, Kegel noticed a defensive formation in which the automatic call was for him to throw a bubble screen.
Ellis got in the way, batting the ball and appearing to some to have simply caught it. With the Huskies celebrating and the crowd stirring, the officials huddled before Riese’s announcement.
“It could have gone either way,” Price said. “Normally you wouldn’t make that call to make the difference in winning or losing.”
After the shock wore off, bottles and debris rained down on the field, the frustration of WSU fans further fueled by the sight of the Huskies celebrating.
Price and Gesser prefer to remember WSU overcoming the defeat to clinch a Rose Bowl berth two weeks later with a 48-27 win at UCLA.
A couple days after that, though, Price accepted the job at Alabama. Monday, Price, 66, announced his retirement after nine years at Texas-El Paso, where he landed after his dismissal at Alabama.
Many Cougars fans wonder what might have been had Alabama not come calling. Price isn’t one of them.
“You can’t go back,” he said last week. “So I don’t look back and say, ‘Gee, I wish I would have done this or would have done that.’ I just keep plugging and looking ahead.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Washington @ Washington State, 12:30 p.m. Friday, Ch. 13