The Huskies got on the board early in Saturday's Apple Cup. Then, everything spiraled out of control for WSU. Now, they can't let one loss spiral into another.
This Washington State senior class badly wanted to go out with a Pac-12 championship. But their chance to clinch the program’s first Pac-12 North division title evaporated by the end of the third quarter of another eventual defeat to their arch-nemesis UW in Saturday night’s Apple Cup at Husky Stadium.
By that point, down 34-0 in a game that spiraled out of WSU’s reach after the second of Myles Gaskin’s four touchdown runs, the Cougars had to face the reality that the coveted trip to the Pac-12 championship game wasn’t going to happen.
The Apple Cup was a night of miscues for the Cougars (9-3 overall, 6-3), who dropped from 14th to 21st in the latest Associated Press top 25 poll released Sunday.
As it was in the other games the Cougars lost this season, their problems began when they started to play frantic.
“We were trying to do too much, over-trying, getting frustrated, getting out of sync,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “We were way too overextended as far as our attention. Everything that went against us, we made a crisis out of it, either consciously or subconsciously to the point where we didn’t function very well.”
On offense, the offensive line couldn’t keep UW defensive tackle Vita Vea away from Luke Falk. Falk also had a rough evening. He admitted forcing the ball in some instances, which led to three interceptions. He also tried to run for a first down in the second quarter, but had the ball stripped by Keishawn Bierria.
“You turn it over four times, it’s a bad night. I don’t think I played that well. I had to give my team a chance,” said Falk, who finished 37 of 55 for 369 yards, though about half those yards came in fourth quarter garbage time when the game was already out of hand.
However, every offensive unit contributed to the Cougars’ bad night.
“He was getting hit non-stop,” Leach said. “Offensive line-wise, he was getting pressured all the time. The notion that Luke is the only guy who played bad is ridiculous. I didn’t feel like we collectively, the whole game, played well at any position.”
But the defense also had its share of miscues. They allowed a season-high 328 rushing yards – 192 of which came courtesy of Gaskin, who also scored four touchdowns and had a 43-yard breakaway scamper.
“People (were) trying to fit in other people’s gaps,” said junior nickelback Hunter Dale, who had four solo tackles. “They see a hole and they want to go run into it and that opens up another hole, instead of doing their own jobs.”
The players all knew what was at stake in the Apple Cup. Did they wilt under the pressure of the moment? Perhaps.
“You could definitely tell that people wanted to play good and get to the Pac-12 championship and stuff like that,” Dale said. “There was hype in this game, and you could see people were trying to overplay or do other people’s jobs and make that one tackle that we thought would win the game.
“That’s something that we’ve got to learn from film and get better from it.”
With Stanford and USC facing off for the Pac-12 title next Friday, the conference champion could end up in a New Year’s Six Bowl – likely, the Fiesta Bowl. Thereafter, things get a little more jumbled. The loser of the title game will probably play in the Alamo Bowl or the Holiday Bowl.
At 10-2, the Huskies are a virtual lock for the Alamo Bowl, but there’s still a slim chance they could still end up in the Holiday Bowl.
That leaves the Cougars as the premier choice for either the Foster Farms Bowl or the Sun Bowl, with Pac-12 South runner-up Arizona State (7-5, 6-3) filling whichever of those two bowls WSU doesn’t get invited to.
The Cougars say they must regroup and put up a strong showing in their bowl game. A bowl win, after all, would give WSU its first 10-win season since 2003, and help to assuage their disappointment from once again falling a game short of a Pac-12 North division title.
They don’t want a repeat of last season, when the Cougars lost their final two regular-season games against Colorado and UW and never managed to re-harness the energy that propelled them to an eight-game win streak earlier in the year. They looked lethargic against Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl, and two losses ultimately spiraled into three.
“We’ve just got to realize we’ve got one more guaranteed college football games as a senior class and just string it together,” Falk said.
Losing to UW again “definitely stings a lot,” Dale said. “But you can’t dwell on this too long. After the Pac-12 championship game, we’ll figure out what bowl game we’re going to, and start watching film on that team and get better from there.”