It looked, for a minute, like it might end up the same way it so often has for Washington State. The Cougars were on the verge of taking a 17-point lead when a holding penalty miles away from the ball brought back a 54-yard touchdown run by Max Borghi. 

A goal-line stand by the Huskies on WSU’s next possession followed, and then a Washington touchdown to make it a one-score game at halftime. Was another Coug Cough-up coming? 

Sorry, not this year’s team. A little scare wasn’t going to cause an implosion. These Cougars have persevered through turmoil all year. They snapped out of their funk instantly — and as a result, snapped an ever-frustrating streak. 

2021 Apple Cup: Cougars 40, Huskies 13

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Washington State beat Washington 40-13 Friday to earn its first Apple Cup win in its last eight tries. It dominated the Huskies in every phase of the game to help salvage a season that, at one point, seemed like it might be lost. It is still possible for the Cougars (7-5, 6-3) to win the Pac-12 North and play for the conference championship next week. They would need Oregon State to upset Oregon on Saturday. 

Either way, with a bowl game guaranteed and a dominant win over its nemesis, consider 2021 a success for WSU. It wasn’t destined to be this way — the Cougs earned every bit of it. 

“They deserve it. There’s been a lot to get to this point. I’ve seen a lot,” Washington State interim coach Jake Dickert said. “They’ve given me everything they can, and they’ve stayed together. They trusted each other, and they kept believing. It’s very fitting for those guys to enjoy that moment and bring the Apple Cup home.” 

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Washington State football, of course, was in the national headlines before the season began due to former head coach Nick Rolovich’s refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccination. Whether the mostly negative attention affected preparation is hard to say, but the Cougs’ season-opening loss to Utah State of the Mountain West suggested it might have. Several weeks later, Rolovich and four of his assistants were fired for failure to comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate for state employees.

This might have rocked the players, but it didn’t break them. Two wins in its next four games made Washington State bowl eligible — an ostensibly surprising result given its 1-3 start. But an eighth straight loss to a reeling Huskies team would have sucked most of the joy out of such an accomplishment. 

Looking at Friday’s contest, however — that was never going to happen. 

On the Cougars’ opening drive, quarterback Jayden de Laura completed all three of his passes before Borghi ran it 32 yards to the end zone. They forced a three-and-out when the Huskies (4-8, 3-6) got the ball back. On the Cougs’ next drive, they drove down to Washington’s 14 before kicking a field goal. They forced a three-and-out when the Huskies got the ball back. 

At one point in the game, the Cougars had 210 yards to Washington’s 3. But after settling for a field goal after being stopped on second-and-goal from the 1, Washington State allowed Washington’s true freshman quarterback Sam Huard to lead a 75-yard touchdown drive to make it 13-7. 

What followed was pure WSU dominance.

The Cougars erased any doubt as to who the superior team was Friday night by scoring on its first four possessions of the second half and building a 20-point lead early in the third quarter. They intercepted Huard three times in the second half (four total) — including one that Armani Marsh returned 28 yards for a touchdown to make it 40-13.

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When the clock hit zero, Washington State fans stormed the field where de Laura — who finished with 245 yards on 27-of-32 passing — planted a WSU flag at midfield.

Said Marsh after the game, “This is literally what you dream of.”

Borghi was a little more, um … colorful.

“I absolutely hate the Huskies. Every Cougar absolutely hates the Huskies,” said Borghi, who finished with 129 yards on 22 carries. “Purple is the ugliest color in the world, and I just know that this cup is never coming back over here.”

In reality, nobody knows how the next few Apple Cups will go — just as nobody knows if the Cougars will end up as conference champions or if Dickert will shed the “interim” portion of his title.

All that’s clear for now is WSU ended its regular season as the premier football program in the Evergreen State and has a chance to do more. That’s worth celebrating no matter what the future holds.