It has become a mind-numbingly familiar scenario.
Washington State comes into the Apple Cup with glittering offensive statistics and the firm belief that this is the year the Cougars will finally foil the game plan of Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake.
If ever there was going to be a time, this was it, with the Huskies beset by inconsistency and untimely breakdowns all season. But there it played out again Friday at Husky Stadium as if on a continuous six-year loop – the same old story, Lake and the Huskies completely out-smarting and out-playing the Air Raid-or-bust Cougars in another lopsided Apple Cup victory.
Lake, who has been prone to pop off in the wake of past routs of the Cougars, was not made available after the game. But the stat sheet spoke eloquently on his behalf. The Cougars, averaging 41.5 points per game, managed nearly 30 fewer in their 31-13 loss. That’s after scoring 15, 14, 17, 10, 13 and 17 in previous Apple Cups against the Lake-Pete Kwiatkowski defenses.
One of these years, you’d expect WSU coach Mike Leach to come up with a new wrinkle for this matchup. But the Cougars threw out roughly the same game plan as always. Doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result is not the definition of insanity, contrary to a quote that Einstein probably never actually said. But it is the definition of a losing Apple Cup strategy.
Asked if the Cougars did anything different this year, junior defensive back Elijah Molden replied, “No, not really. They haven’t switched up their plays, so we keep running the same stuff.”
Asked the same question, Husky coach Chris Petersen answered, “No. They run the same offense every single game. And do a good job with it.”
Just not on a certain Friday in November. The Cougars came in averaging 533 yards of offense a game, and amassed 339. They came in averaging 457.7 passing yards, and got 308. They came in giving up 1.18 sacks per game, and allowed five.
And all that after WSU raised a glimmer of hope of a paradigm shift by taking the opening kickoff and driving 81 yards for a touchdown. It was a masterful mix of pass and run that raised the prospect that either the Cougars had figured things out, or the Huskies didn’t have the caliber of players to stop them.
It was neither, of course, as became readily apparent soon enough.
“I was almost glad it happened just to see how we would respond,’’ Molden said of Washington State’s initial drive, which consumed five minutes and 53 seconds. “I mean, it’s all about how you respond. You’re going to get punched in the mouth in a fight. You’ve got to take the next punch.”
The Huskies came back swinging, and the game quickly resumed the same monotonous parameters as always. As Lake put it after last year’s win in Pullman, “It makes it very easy when you know what you’re going to get.”
The Huskies’ defensive line was able to wreak enough havoc with a three-man rush to fluster WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon. And while the Cougars had their share of successful dinking-and-dunking, Gordon never connected on a harmful long one. Meanwhile, the Huskies picked him off twice and also recovered a fumble.
“It’s not about yards, it’s about points,’’ Petersen said – and repeated that sentiment a couple of times.
Petersen lauded the Huskies’ three-man rush, a strategy that puts a tremendous physical toll on those defensive linemen.
“It can get frustrating, it can get hard, it can get tiresome,’’ he said. “We got him five times (sacks), which is humongous. That was a big part of the game.”
So was the Huskies’ tackling, another constant of their six-year Apple Cup streak under Petersen – but not always a strength this season.
“I felt we were a lot more physical today than we’ve been in the past,’’ senior defensive back Myles Bryant said. “That’s the nature of the game. That’s the nature of this Apple Cup. They’re a team that likes to throw a lot of crossing routes, a lot of digs over the middle. Those guys have to get hit. So I think we demonstrated that today and it paid off for us.”
The obvious next thought is, where has that been all season? The Huskies came in reeling from a dispiriting loss to a subpar Colorado team. They were in danger of handing Petersen the first losing record of his coaching career with an Apple Cup loss followed by one in their bowl game.
But Washington’s inspired play on both sides of the ball was almost wistful in the sense that it highlighted the sort of potential the Huskies held, but rarely met.
Petersen said, “I thought our guys on defense executed to a T.” And on offense, quarterback Jacob Eason played a crisp, efficient game with a minimum of mistakes and enough big strikes to disrupt the Cougars. After riding the legs of running back Myles Gaskin the previous four years, this victory was predicated on gashing the Cougars downfield.
But mostly, it was a tale as old as time. Or, at least, as old as Chris Petersen’s arrival on Montlake in 2014. Once again, they took what Leach gave them, and swatted it harmlessly aside.
Nick Harris, the Huskies’ senior center, sported an undershirt that said, “We don’t lose to Cougs” – a factual statement for his time on campus, and an achievement that the seniors will brag about for perpetuity. Harris was asked if he was surprised that Washington State didn’t change its tactics.
“I could care less,’’ he shrugged. “Obviously, it’s not working against us. It is what it is.”
It is what it always is: A Husky defensive coup in the Apple Cup.