Really, it was the only fitting conclusion — i.e., an ugly one — to a Husky season that began tilting downhill in the opener, and has been a cascading avalanche of muck ever since.
There would be no happy ending, no face-saving victory, no salvaging of pride by dispatching, yet again, their rivals from the East in the finale. And there would be no breakout performance by freshman quarterback Sam Huard to at least provide a modicum of hope heading into 2022.
Instead, the Apple Cup provided the final dose of embarrassment for Washington in a season rife with adversity. Who could have ever anticipated the body blows to come when the Huskies scored on their first drive of the season against Montana, with so much promise and hope stretching out in front of them.
They somehow lost that game, a precursor to losing their coach, Jimmy Lake, after he self-destructed before, during and after a devastating loss to Oregon. And somewhere along the line, they lost the heart and soul of a once-proud program.
They certainly didn’t find it Friday, when many of the issues that have plagued them all season not only re-emerged, but were fully exploited by Washington State. In suffering their most decisive defeat to the Cougars in the 114-year history of this rivalry, the Huskies were outgained 454-200, managing just 10 yards on the ground while giving up 209 rushing yards. Their struggles from the quarterback position were a season-long problem that continued to fester in the finale.
Asked to sum up Washington’s 4-8 season, senior running back Sean McGrew said, “The words I want to use, I’m not allowed to say. … Just chaos.”
The Huskies let their chaos build on itself as the season progressed, while the Cougars conquered theirs. From the start on Friday, the Cougars looked hellbent on purging seven straight Apple Cup defeats in one fell swoop. And succeeded. Despite having their own midseason coaching change, they found their footing and have a host of good things ahead of them, including a guaranteed bowl game and possibly even a Pac-12 North title if Oregon loses to Oregon State on Saturday,
The Huskies, meanwhile, end their season battered, reeling and at the lowest point as a program since the final days of Tyrone Willingham. At the moment, it’s hard to ascertain exactly what they’ll sell future recruits on; much will depend on the impending coaching hire by athletic director Jen Cohen, which now becomes the single-minded focus of all Husky fans.
They certainly won’t want to dwell on Friday. The decision to start Huard over Dylan Morris was not unexpected, though it backfired badly. Interim coach Bob Gregory summed up his reasoning well: “Give us a spark. Do something different. We had to do something different.”
Much of the Huskies’ future hopes are pinned on Huard living up to his hype as a five-star recruit. And the true freshman, thrust into the first start of his career in the highest pressure game of the season, had some moments Friday in which he showed flashes of that promise. Those included a 55-yard connection with Rome Odunze, and a 16-yard touchdown pass that Odunze hauled in one-handed.
But Huard threw four interceptions — including one returned for a touchdown by Armani Marsh — that propelled Washington State squarely in the direction of their rout. It’s not the lasting image, or memory, that the Huskies were hoping to send Huard into the offseason with.
“He was crushed not to win,’’ Gregory said of Huard. “But he was not crushed as far as spirit.”
McGrew went so far as to predict that Huard will never lose another Apple Cup.
“It’s definitely a tough game to get thrown in there to play basically your first real football game,’’ he said. “But I think he’ll come back a thousand times stronger.”
How long it will take the Huskies collectively to come back not just from the trauma of the Apple Cup but the debacle of the entire season is now the burning question. Keep in mind that this game could have been far worse for the Washington if the Cougars hadn’t settled for four field goals on drives they couldn’t quite finish.
The domination of the Cougars, nevertheless, was total. Quarterback Jayden de Laura was a paragon of efficiency (27 of 32 passing for 245 yards and no interceptions) while running back Max Borghi rushed for 129 yards and two touchdowns (plus an apparent 54-yard TD run in which he was quite literally untouched before it was called back by a holding penalty).
It’s stunning to think of how the Huskies end the year compared to how they went into it. Lake talked boldly of winning the Pac-12 title, but instead it was a year of regression that was foreshadowed in the opener against Montana.
Although outgoing senior running backs McGrew and Kamari Pleasant talked positively of the culture and brotherhood within the team, the results were sorely lacking, and they are now facing a total reformation of the program.
On Friday, as the Cougars celebrated gleefully on the Huskies’ field, and WSU students in attendance stormed the field, it was apparent how difficult a task that will be.