Washington State wasn’t so much overmatched against Washington in the Apple Cup as they were unable to avoid the type of mistakes that teams need to avoid to win a big game.
PULLMAN — There are a number of instances — whether it be a seven-game winning streak or love from the big polls — that suggest Washington State football has turned the corner.
There are myriad examples — such as the rout of Stanford or their near-peerless passing game — that make it seem as if this is a whole new set of Cougars.
And yet there remains a stigma that continues to haunt this program despite its rise in the Mike Leach era. Simply put: When the moment gets big, the Cougs get small.
“We’re soft,” said WSU receiver Gabe Marks after Washington’s 45-17 win in the Apple Cup, a game that decided the Pac-12 North champion. “We got down to the 1-yard line and couldn’t get a yard. If you can’t get 1 yard, you don’t deserve to win.”
For the sixth-ranked Huskies, the scoreboard didn’t look all that much different from when they beat Arizona State 44-18 six days earlier. But basic observation skills will tell you that this was a completely different game.
The Sun Devils never stood a chance last week despite UW’s slow start. No. 23 Washington State, on the other hand, bungled chance after chance until victory was impossible.
It started on the Cougars’ first possession when running back Jamal Morrow fumbled on his own 46 after a 13-yard run, thus allowing Washington (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) to take a 14-0 lead. It continued in the second quarter, when first-and-goal from the 6 resulted in a turnover on downs for Wazzu, which was stopped on the 1.
It got especially ugly at the end of the first half, when WSU quarterback Luke Falk threw an interception in the end zone on first and goal from the 9. And it came to a head at the end of the third quarter, when Washington State — trailing 35-17 at the time — saw a first-and-goal from the 4 end in a turnover on downs.
To suggest that the Cougs (8-4, 7-2) were just a few yards away from making the game competitive might sound ridiculous after a 28-point rout. Friday’s loss was less the result of them being overmatched as it was them underachieving.
Leach said that if they were to play this game next week, the score would be different. Unfortunately, a big moment is a big moment because there’s no chance for a redo.
“We did it to ourselves,” Washington State right tackle Cole Madison said. “We didn’t finish anything. That’s pretty much it right there.”
The thing about Friday is that it wasn’t the first time WSU botched an opportunity to send a message with a marquee win. Against ninth-ranked Colorado the week before, Marks dropped a fourth-down pass in the end zone that would have given Washington State a 21-7 lead. Instead, the Buffaloes took over possession, tied the score, and went on to a 38-24 win.
Does this mean that the Cougs are really a 10-2 team wearing an 8-4 team’s clothing? No. You can never say that about a squad that lost back-to-back games by double digits.
But does it mean that the Cougs have a habit of falling through the trap door on the biggest stages? Based on recent evidence, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
In some respects, you have to give Washington State credit for bouncing back from an 0-2 start and temporarily climbing to the top of the conference standings. A loss to an FCS team (Eastern Washington) followed by a narrow defeat at the hands of Boise State is more likely to demoralize than it is to inspire.
At the same time, when you look at the Cougars’ schedule — of which USC and Utah are conspicuously absent — you’ll notice that Idaho and Stanford are the only teams with winning records that they’ve beaten. And that makes you wonder if their growth spurt was really as pronounced as it once seemed.
After Friday’s game, there was some disagreement as to why Washington State struggled as much as it did. Leach seemed to think it was because the players were trying to do too much, whereas Marks thought they weren’t doing enough.
Whatever the case, Wazzu shrunk from what should have been a competitive divisional championship game. This game was never close — because the Cougs weren’t ready for the close-up.