WSU was a surprise contender in the Pac-12 this season. But its loss in the Apple Cup, its sixth consecutive, wasn't so surprising.
PULLMAN — Fans were calling it the miracle season. A stretch of games that produced results nobody could have possibly foreshadowed.
Ten wins for a team picked to finish fifth in its side of the conference? A Heisman campaign from a fifth-year transfer nobody had heard of?
What the Washington State Cougars had done in 2018 defied every expectation and prognosis. Until Friday, that is — when they did something all too predictable.
The Cougs just can’t get it done. Not when it really matters. Not when something tangible is on the line.
For the third consecutive year, they came into the Apple Cup needing a win to advance to the Pac-12 title game. And for the third year in a row, UW beat them by at least two scores.
The Huskies (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12) have won their past six games against Wazzu, the final of this one being 28-15. In this rivalry, the Dawgs are the ones holding the leash.
“It’s very frustrating. That’s (three) years in a row now we’ve had a chance to go to the Pac-12 championship. They’ve always been in our way,” WSU defensive back Hunter Dale said. “Same outcome this year. We couldn’t change it.”
To Washington State’s credit, Friday’s game was competitive. After trailing 20-7, the Cougs (10-2, 7-2) returned a blocked extra point to the end zone for two points, then forced a fumble and drove 24 yards to cut the deficit to five.
But they wouldn’t get any closer. Despite having two chances to take the lead late in the game, the miracle man ran out of magic.
Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew has been the best story in college football this year. He entered the game with a nation-leading 4,325 passing yards to go along with 36 touchdowns. He’d also thrown just seven interceptions despite 578 passing attempts.
But something wasn’t right Friday. Whether it was the nonstop snowfall, the Husky defense, nerves, or a combination of all three, Minshew was nowhere near his usual magnificent self.
His first pass of the game probably should have been intercepted, but Husky safety Taylor Rapp couldn’t reel it in. He’d end up throwing two picks, one coming at the end of the first half, the other from his own 25 late in the third quarter.
Perhaps the most glaring stat was the 152 yards UW held him to on 35 throws, which was just a shade above four yards per pass.
What was the vibe in the locker room like after the game?
“We’re very disappointed. We had a lot riding on this game. We had big goals that we set for ourselves that kind of depended on the outcome of this game,” said Minshew, who downplayed how much the conditions affected him. “We felt like we let each other down.”
By no means does this loss fall on Minshew, though. Wazzu’s inability to slow down the run is what this loss came down to.
Huskies tailback Myles Gaskin finished with 170 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries — the last score coming via an 80-yard run in the fourth quarter to virtually sealed the game and clinch the Pac-12 North.
The open-field tackles the Cougs needed just weren’t there. Nor were the key stops.
Facing a third-and-16 from his own 19 on the first possession of the second half, Huskies quarterback Jake Browning completed a 59-yard pass. His team scored a touchdown one play later to go up by 13.
Unfortunately, these have been the salient moments for the Cougs in the Apple Cup lately. It’s always the ones they’d like to have back and never the ones they’ll cherish forever.
Wazzu fans have been waiting for three years to pop the Champagne, but their team just won’t let them remove the cork.
WSU coach Mike Leach opted for a positive spin after the game, saying these Apple Cup losses haven’t taken the toll on his team some might think it has. He knows it looks like they underachieve at the end of the year, but argues that they’ve overachieved in general.
“Virtually every one of those times, nobody thought we were going to be there in the first place,” Leach said. “I’m not sure that everyone of those years they (the media) didn’t have us having a losing season. And we never did that. So from that standpoint we’re more games over the mark than anybody else.”
There’s truth to that. Just like there’s truth to this being one of the more memorable seasons in Cougs history.
WSU fans had never quite seen anything like this before. Then came Friday — a result they’ve seen far too many times.