It was closer than it has been, but other than that, the story was the same as it always is when an Apple Cup involves Mike Leach and Chris Petersen: The No. 16 Washington Huskies dominated the No. 8 Washington State Cougars, again, 28-15 at snowy Martin Stadium.
The Huskies (9-3 overall, 7-2 Pac-12) advance to the Pac-12 Championship Game on the head-to-head tiebreaker, while the Cougars (10-2, 7-2) wait to find out their bowl fate, which likely boils down to either a New Year’s Six game — likely the Fiesta Bowl — or the Alamo Bowl.
The Huskies led by just a touchdown at halftime, 14-7, a score that was multiple degrees better than the last few years. WSU stayed within shouting distance throughout, never falling behind by more than two touchdowns — only in this game is that actually progress — but it was clear from the outset which team was the superior one. Again.
For as special as Gardner Minshew II has looked all season, he looked much like Peyton Bender and Luke Falk in the previous four Apple Cups: Plagued by indecision in the face of the Washington defense. He did a lot of standing around and dumping off to running backs, and when he was under pressure, he made some bad throws, including two interceptions. He threw for just 4.3 yards per attempt, easily a season low. He completed just 26-of-35 passes for 152 yards and zero touchdowns.
Did the snow have something to do with it? Perhaps. In fact, probably. The ball looked as if it was fluttering off Minshew’s hand a bit, and the wet cold can’t make it easy to grip the ball and throw. That said, Jake Browning generally was able to make the throws he needed to. Again. And the Huskies put the ball on the ground three times, with WSU recovering two of them.
In fact, it really was some fortuitous turnover luck that allowed WSU to stay close for as long as it did, because in the end, the Huskies outgained the Cougars by a more than two-to-one margin: 487-237.
As the Apple Cup always does for WSU, the game started inauspiciously, as the Cougs took the opening kickoff and suffered a three-and-out — which nearly ended with an interception as the Huskies were aggressively following Minshew’s eyes and jumping routes.
It didn’t get much better from there, as a short punt set up the Huskies on their own 35. They proceeded to march down to WSU’s 11-yard-line behind seven runs and just two passes, capped by a 10-yard run by Myles Gaskin to convert a 3rd-and-8.
Things turned dramatically two plays later when Skyler Thomas picked off Browning throwing late and to the middle of the field — Browning’s first career interception in the red zone. The WSU offense woke up and proceeded to move down to UW’s 12-yard-line, but Minshew’s third down scramble was a yard short of the line to gain, and a bad snap from Fred Mauigoa on 4th-and-1 resulted in a fumble and a turnover.
UW went right back to work doing what it did on the first drive, only this time, a big play over the top meant the Huskies didn’t need to churn it all out — Darrien Molton lost leverage, and with the safety coming up in run support on the play action, Browning hit Andre Baccellia for a 48-yard gain. A few plays later, Gaskin ran over Jalen Thompson for a touchdown.
WSU moved the ball a bit on its next drive, aided in large part by a defensive pass interference, but could only get just across midfield. Oscar Draguicevic’s punt went into the end zone.
Nine plays later, Gaskin was in the end zone. Again. It was only 14-0 Washington, and there was still just over five minutes to go in the first half, but it felt like it might be heading for a blowout. Again.
WSU did rally for a TD on the next drive; Travell Harris returned the kickoff to midfield, and 11 plays later, WSU was in the end zone when a draw play to James Williams on 1st-and-10 with 37 seconds to go resulted in an 11-yard scamper to paydirt.
On the ensuing kickoff, with just 33 seconds to go, Jack Crane squibbed it downfield. The ball was fielded by one of the blockers, Max Richmond, who fumbled when he was clobbered by Cole Dubots. Dezmon Patmon recovered at the UW 20 with 28 seconds remaining, and all of a sudden it seemed like maybe WSU’s charmed season would continue.
But three plays later — after a dump-off and an incompletion under pressure — Minshew floated a hail mary-looking pass to the end zone on 3rd down that was easily picked off. To call the decision mystifying when the team was already in field goal range is an understatement.
No ... no life.
Washington got the ball to start the second half, and after WSU pushed them backward into a 3rd-and-16 from their own 21, Browning stepped up into the pocket and found Hunter Bryant, who had scrambled away from Hunter Dale and rumbled for 59 yards. On the next play, WSU got fooled on a double pass — because, of course they did — and wide receiver Aaron Fuller tossed the ball to a wide open Bryant.
UW’s kicker booted the ball right into the line on the PAT, though, and Dale scooped it up to score a 2-pointer the other way. Three-point swing, 20-9.
WSU picked up a first down but could do no more, done in by a Minshew intentional grounding that put WSU in a 3rd-and-16 hole. WSU punted, and when UW hit a 32-yard screen pass to Baccellia, it felt like the defense was never going to be able to stop them.
But stop them they did! On 3rd-and-15, WSU finally dialed up a blitz that got home, Browning got loose with the football — as he sometimes does — and Willie Taylor III poked the ball away. After a scramble, Dillon Sherman fell on it at the UW 23, and WSU was in business with a short field.
Leach decided he’d had enough of trying to throw the ball and went to the ground game: Sandwiched around an 11-yard completion to Easop Winston Jr. to pick up a first down were four runs, including a 9-yard gain by James Williams, who punched it into the end zone from a yard out two plays later. Down by five, WSU went for two, but Minshew’s pass was too deep.
WSU forced a punt on the next UW drive — the Huskies’ first of the game — and it felt like the game miiiiiiiight be turning. But two plays later, the offensive line got beat on a three-man rush (another Apple Cup tradition) and Minshew made a terrible decision to flutter a pass high and wide of Patmon, and Ben Burr-Kirven picked it off easily.
But WSU forced another punt! Yay! Then Minshew nearly threw another pick on third down. Booo. And WSU punted it back.
Three plays later, UW finally put the game, which they had dominated statistically, out of reach: On 3rd-and-1 from their own 20, Gaskin broke loose for one of his trademark Apple Cup back breakers with an 80-yard touchdown — his third TD of the game. UW ran in the two-pointer, and WSU trailed 28-15.
WSU again moved the ball a little, but stalled out around midfield. Leach inexplicably elected to punt with just about nine minutes to go in the game and needing two stops and two scores, and the game that probably was never as close as it felt was officially put to bed: UW took the final 8:47 minutes off the clock with a 14-play, 76-yard drive that ended with the Huskies taking knees inside the WSU 10-yard-line.
If one thing is clear, it’s this: WSU has to build its roster differently if it’s even going to think about competing with Washington. Until then, we’ll just keep feeling like we do today.