The defense that had been so reliable this season for the Washington State Cougars crumbled in the most important game of the season, giving up 703 yards en route to a 51-33 loss to the Washington Huskies in the Apple Cup.
The game was an entertaining one for neutrals, with lots of scoring back and forth — the teams traded the lead eight times in the first half as each team’s defense struggled to find a foothold — but it was an extremely frustrating game in the end for WSU fans.
The key sequence took place just before the break ... and just after it.
Following a TD to give Washington a lead at 28-24 with under two minutes remaining, the Cougs drove all the way down to the UW 12-yard line with seven seconds remaining. The ensuing second down pass was incomplete, and the Cougs settled for a field goal on third down — with a timeout still in their pockets. Earlier in the drive, WSU had the option to call timeout on a running clock elected not to, ending up losing 25 seconds in the process. It sure would have been nice to have one more shot at the end zone.
Then, on the first play of the second half, Michael Penix Jr. found Jalen McMillan for a 75-yard TD to put the Cougs in position to have to play catchup the rest of the game. They never did, failing on a two-point conversion that would have tied it at 35 in the third quarter, and then failing to come up with stops when the game was still in reach.
A 40-yard TD run that put the Huskies over 50 with a couple of minutes to go — in which the runner was untouched — was just a poetic exclamation point.
Dreadful Defense: The defense has been the rock on which the Cougs’ seven wins were built, but it was no match for Michael Penix Jr. and his talented group of receivers on this day. The Huskies got off to a slow start as Penix learned how to deal with the cold, but once he did, the Cougs only stood a chance when Washington made major turnover mistakes — something they did twice in the second half. The numbers were absolutely brutal: 10.5 yards per play for the Huskies, the most given up in a game since Arizona put up 11.5 in 2017. For a bit more context, no Paul Wulff defense ever gave up 10 yards per play. Washington’s offense is very good, but this was an absolute dud: more than 700 yards of total offense, 485 of them from the arm of Penix.
At least some of that had to do with the absence of starting nickel Armani Marsh, who say out with an injury. WSU coach Jake Dickert has, at various times this year, called Marsh the best player on the defense. It sometimes seemed like an odd thing to say, given some of the other talented guys on that unit, but tonight Dickert was proven to be prescient: Marsh’s replacement, Armauni Archie, was repeatedly picked on, particularly in the first half: he got beat for Washington’s first TD, gave up a 3rd and 15 that eventually led to a TD, and was the primary defender on a handful of other plus plays for the Huskies. Football is a team sport, and the line could have gotten more pressure, yadda yadda yadda, but the reality is that UW’s offense is very, very good and a defense needs to absolutely be on its game to slow them down, and the Huskies found a weak spot that they exploited over and over and over. If Marsh is in there, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that the Cougs have a big halftime lead for the fourth time in four games. Instead, they trailed by one at the break — and things spiraled away from them in the second half.
Inconsistent Cam: Cam Ward finished with a good-looking stat line — 33 of 52 for 322 yards and a pair of TDs — but it’s impossible to overlook the meat left on the bone on a day when the defense wasn’t up to its usual standard. Ward made some incredible plays (see the TD below), but he also badly missed a number of open throws.
Perhaps no play better encapsulated his night than this one.
Trailing 35-27 after Washington hit a 75-yard TD on the first play of the second half, the game was on the verge of spiraling out of control. But Daiyan Henley forced a fumble, and the offense was in prime field position to put the pressure back on Washington from the Huskies’ 42. Nine plays later, Nakia Watson was in the end zone. The Cougs elected to go for two, and with Ward pulling one of his many escape acts, he appeared to have the conversion ... except he didn’t. The ball was in his left hand as he nonchalantly headed toward the left pylon, and he was ruled short by the (very enthusiastic) ref on the field. Ward might have crossed the line — he certainly thought he did — but the video evidence wasn’t conclusive enough to overturn the call on the field. Those two points would have been nice. (Although they probably wouldn’t have made a difference.)
Turd Quarter(s): Terrible offense in the second half has been a running theme for the Cougs this year, and I have definitely downplayed its significance over the past few weeks, explaining it away as a function of big halftime leads. But tonight, in a game in which the offense really needed to put up some points in the second half, the offense was once again completely inept after the break. WSU put up more than 300 yards and 27 points against he Huskies in the first half, only to gain 129 and score 6 points in the second. That offensive coordinator Eric Morris has no answers, week after week after week is extremely troubling as we look toward next season.
Did you see that?