Buried in the snow, Cougars uncover some perspective after disheartening Apple Cup loss
PULLMAN – Wherever this season ends for the Cougars, all 17 outgoing Washington State seniors will lament the opportunity that passed them by Friday night under snowy skies in Pullman.
No, they won’t spend the rest of their lives deeply burdened by the fact they couldn’t beat the University of Washington in the 111th Apple Cup – or any of those prior – but it’ll probably be a while before they can flip on the annual rivalry game without reflecting on a 28-15 loss to the Huskies at Martin Stadium, signifying their sixth consecutive loss in the Apple Cup and another squandered opportunity to capture a Pac-12 North crown.
For the immediate future, the Cougars will ponder the individual plays that could have swung the game the other way. In the previous three games against the Huskies, WSU lost by 35, 28 and 27 points, so it was hard to point to one error – or even a series of them – that would have made a substantial difference.
That wasn’t the case Friday night. Just about every WSU starter on either side of the ball probably felt he had one or two lapses in execution or effort that may have helped the Cougars’ cause.
“Just a few missed tackles,” senior nickel back Hunter Dale said, “that went for a few big plays.”
“A few of the throws, the slide on third down (in the first quarter),” graduate transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew said afterward. “I thought I had (the first down) and I didn’t. And just seeing some of the chances we had that we didn’t take advantage of.”
All of those smaller cuts led to a much larger wound for WSU’s accomplished senior class.
“It’s very frustrating, that’s four years in a row we had a chance to go to the Pac-12 championship and they’ve stopped us,” Dale said. “They’ve always been in our way, and the same outcome this year. Couldn’t change it.”
But Mike Leach has lauded this team all season for its poise, maturity and togetherness – it isn’t always easy to extract this kind of praise from the WSU coach – so it isn’t surprising that in the wake of a disheartening loss, the Cougars were able to uncover some much-needed perspective.
“We have a great opportunity,” running back James Williams said. “Loss aside, I’m super proud of our team. We played for each other this year, we did a lot of great things this year, and we’re just going to have to get better and play one play at a time, have one practice at a time this next month. Hopefully, we get to a good bowl game, and when we get to a bowl game, we need to make up for what we didn’t do today.”
On Dec. 2, WSU will learn where it’s headed for bowl season. For the Cougars, ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings heading into the weekend, the game itself and the opponent will be more appealing than they’ve been under Leach, in his seventh season at the WSU helm.
Four bowl games seem to officially be in play for WSU – the Valero Alamo Bowl (Dec. 28), the Redbox Bowl (Dec. 31), the Holiday Bowl (Dec. 31) and the Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1). The prevailing theory is that if the Cougars don’t earn a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, a coveted “New Year’s Six” game in Glendale, Arizona, they’ll be snapped up by the Alamo Bowl, in San Antonio.
Either would be a nice prize for a Cougars team that won more games (10) in a regular season than had been done in Pullman for 15 years. An 11-win season would be unprecedented for the program.
In the offseason, and even in the early stages of the nonconference schedule, few expected this WSU team would be arriving at the Apple Cup with a shot to win the Pac-12 North. The most optimistic fan figured the Cougars would find seven wins on this schedule, but the majority of the predictions had WSU in the 3-to-5-win range. Preseason Pac-12 media polls pegged the Cougars to finish fifth in the North Division.
So, just in case anyone needed a refresher …
“Virtually every one of those times (against UW), nobody thought we were going to be there in the first place,” Leach said. “I mean, I’m not sure that every one of those years, they didn’t have us having a losing season. Most of them they did, and we never did that. So if you want to view it that way, we’re more games over the mark than everybody else. There’s various defining games and finish lines and all that. The other fact of the matter is, we’ve won more conference games in that period of time than anybody else.
“If that’s so easy, then everybody would do it.”