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The 2015 Apple Cup was bad, but whatever

Some thoughts on the Apple Cup, where everything went wrong and the Cougs reverted into something we thought had died long ago.

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

1. This is Madison. She'll take it away from here.

2. You're worried about Peyton Bender, and that's fair. Bender didn't have to be everything to everyone in the Apple Cup. The point was never that he's Luke Falk, but that the pieces around him  on both sides of the ball were good enough for him to be Peyton Bender, and do enough to win. And he started the game just fine, too.

After Bender and the offense threw three very good punches in the first quarter and missed on all of them, that was about it. Bender has the physical tools, but his misses -- not being on the same page as a receiver, not seeing a corner sitting in a zone -- seemed to indicate that he wasn't quite sure what he was seeing from the defense. And when he was, he had misfires with ball placement, as well.

Washington spent a lot of time showing one thing, and convincing Bender of it, before moving late and blowing everything up. They would show man outside, then sprint a safety over the top right at the snap, for example. Things that Falk has seen in live action and diagnose on the fly, but that Bender hasn't seen and can't quite do yet.

Washington's defense is good. It was great in the Apple Cup. They made plays on the ball and spent the day, as Washington State had to play from behind, confusing Bender and the offense.

Is Bender doomed? Probably not. It's a bad game on a big stage early in his career. Remember, Falk played a very good game against Oregon State last year and a very bad game against Washington in the Apple Cup before bursting onto the scene this year. We've seen very bad games from very good WSU quarterbacks. This might be a blip on the radar -- a rough game by a young kid who, by trying to do too much, compounded his mistakes.

3. They rolled over for the first time in what seems like forever. There was no answer for Washington, and no counterpunch for anything. The defense got run over. The offense couldn't open up a lead on Washington to give the defense room to get aggressive. And when things didn't go the Cougs' way, they could do nothing about it.

Here, more than anywhere, is where Luke Falk was probably missed the most. Falk has been very good at keeping things from snowballing out of control. The offense will have bad drives -- and sometimes streaks of quick three-and-outs -- but Falk keeps things under control and doesn't let the mistakes snowball.

So when you see Leach talk about all of the "my bads" and mistakes adding up, and the heads starting to get down, this is likely what he means. From play-to-play and drive-to-drive, Falk spent most of the season dictating control of the game. Get off schedule and backed up into long yardage situations? Falk would calmly chew away yardage to get back on schedule, or hit a bomb on third and long. That comes with an understanding of the offense and the ability to play within yourself. Bender didn't have that, and doesn't have that yet.

To be clear, Falk might not have changed anything. But as the drops started to add up, and turnovers came into play, Bender forced the ball and made mistakes on top of mistakes. That's him being young, not seeing live defenses much, and the fact that he was facing a very good, and very confusing, Washington defense.

4. And speaking of the defense...

Washington did what Washington State wanted to do on both sides of the ball. The Huskies put them both behind the sticks on drives and behind on the scoreboard. The Washington defense was able to do the one thing the Cougars needed to: Get home with four or five, and do enough to bother the quarterback.

When the Huskies got home, they stripped the ball -- a thing Washington State enjoys doing. When they Huskies didn't get home, they rushed with integrity and moved Bender off his spot.

This was enough to do a few things that altered the game. By rushing hard off the edges with very good pass rushers, it forced Bender to step up in the pocket (he's good at shuffling his feet, like Falk). But waiting was a strong inside rush, which led to Bender not being able to step into throws or escape out the side door. It gives corners a split second more to break on a pass that floats a bit, and that makes all the difference.

And while Bender had time to make passes, it didn't feel like comfortable time either. It was just enough to get into his head and cause him to force throws, or make bad throws without his feet set.

It's exactly the game the Cougar defense has to play. They're not good enough to blanket a field in defensive backs and cover, and also not good enough to bring the house and hope the back-end can cover in man. Not yet, at least, though the secondary is improving. They have to get pressuring with four or five and cause confusion up front to force mistakes.

Washington did this, and did it very well in the Apple Cup. The Cougs didn't, and as a result Washington spent the game running the ball down their throat, then hitting them with counters. This is happens when you 1) can't make a team chase, allowing them to dictate tempo and 2) can't force pressure to create your own breaks.

5. Nothing worked, and when things were setup, nobody made a play.

Washington State had a very good chance to open up a lead and dictate the game. That's where the Cougs are at their best: Get up a score, maybe two, and make the other team try to keep up with your offense. The defense thrives on this: It's where they force the opponent into passing situations and have made plays on the ball while pouncing on mistakes.

Dom Williams dropped what looked like a sure touchdown on an outside screen; and, again, the outside screen was a concept we thought would get Bendersettled in. This did a few things: It took points off the board that would've given the Cougs an early lead; it probably blew up some of the confidence in the offense; a big play might've changed how Washington had to cover that concept, as well, which is what typically sets WSU up to take a shot.

The Cougs crossed the Washington 30 on their first three drives.* Those drives ended with a FG, a fumble and a missed FG. The chances were there early, and the Cougs shot themselves in the foot, then let things get away from them. This is what Leach was talking about after the game when he said he felt the issues were just as much self-inflicted as they were of Washington's doing.

*Bender was actually just fine here, and the offense looked very normal. Again, make some plays and maybe things go differently. Credit to the Washington defense, as well. They continue to be very good, and step up when they need to.

6. Gabe Marks is hurt. More than the score, this was the thing that made me feel the worst. Fighting for extra yards while his team was getting its ass kicked, Marks suffered a scary leg injury. We'll expand on this later.

7. You'll be mad about this for a while, and that's okay. It's an Apple Cup. You're going to hear about it for a year. This is how rivalries go, and when you're the better team, in record and rank, that gets knocked off (despite the point spread), expect a torrent of trash talk.

This is a situation where you just have to wear it, and Washington fans should gleefully talk all the smack they want (you would too if the roles were reverse). It's frustrating to watch a good Cougar team roll over in a game everyone circles on their calendar in the spring.

8. But I can't be all that mad. If you were to tell me, after losing to Portland State, that the Cougs would rip off eight wins in 11 games, beat Oregon, give Stanford a run, and beat a ranked team on the road, I'd laugh at you. Most of us struggled to find six wins on the schedule before the season started. When the Cougs lost to Portland State, it looked like the season was basically over after one freaking game.

Except it wasn't. The Cougs got whipped by Portland State, despite the score, and turned around and got pissed about it. It took them about three more games to figure enough things out to be truly dangerous, but when they did they were the most dangerous team around.

The Cougs got whipped again, and this time by an in-state rival. They not only got whipped, but they know they played flat. Think about having to sit through eight months of an offseason with that being the lasting memory of 2015.

Instead, Wazzu has been bowl-eligible for about a month, and gets a shot to finish the season right. Washington flat out beat them, and Husky fans will, deservedly, hold it over your heads for a while. You're going to have to live with that, but can do so knowing there's a bowl game ahead, and a chance to watch a very fun team try to put things together one more time.

That's pretty awesome, as frustrating as the Apple Cup was. This season was still pretty awesome, too, despite how frustrating the first game was and last games were.