What will it take for WSU to finally beat UW in the Apple Cup again?
The last two years, I couldn’t even bring myself to write my normal Monday column following the Apple Cup. That’s one of the perks of running the show around here — I can just decide I don’t want to do something, and since I’m the boss, nobody can yell at me.
I don’t skip very many weeks during the football season with these things, though; there are only a dozen or so games, and given that two-thirds of the year is filled with not-football, including some number of dreary months of Cougar basketball, it seems like a real missed opportunity to not write about every game.
But I skipped the Apple Cups because ... just ... you know ... I think you understand. Too frustrating. Too irritating. It’s one thing to fire off a few angry one liners on Twitter or a handful of indignant sentences in the comments of the game thread; it’s quite another to try and stave off both depression and fury long enough to spend the hours required to compose an even-handed reflection of those dumpster fires. I also try not to be too hard on a bunch of college kids, and since there was just nothing nice to say, I figured I’d just take my mom’s advice and not even bother.
I don’t know that I have anything all that nice to say about this year’s ass kicking*, either, but my mood is different than it has been. Much of that is because of what transpired over the 11 games prior to the Apple Cup; whatever fun Washington fans had winning on Friday, it’s only a teeny, tiny fraction of the fun we all had getting to that point. Nothing can erase that — not even another loss to our rival that lets an assistant coach run his mouth again even as he continues to owe his success to riding on the coattails of his wildly successful head coach.
*I’m aware that some of you will shout BUT IT WAS A FIVE-POINT GAME IN THE FOURTH QUARTER, to which I would shout back, THEY GAINED 500 YARDS AND TOOK A KNEE INSIDE OUR 10-YARD LINE TO END THE GAME, WHICH SOUNDS LIKE AN ASS KICKING TO ME. Your mileage may vary.
Some of my tepid mood is because all I can do is shake my head at the impact the weather had on the game.
We all wanted to believe that this was the year the game would be different. And it might have been, in different circumstances; I don’t think anyone can deny the weather played a significant factor on Saturday. Someone, somewhere will accuse me of making an excuse, given that the previous five years suggest the Cougs might have gotten run off the field regardless of the weather. That might be true! We’ll obviously never know. But I think it’s hard to argue that the snow accumulation virtually ensured WSU would lose on Friday.
An offense built around precision and timing and — importantly — moving in concert both vertically and horizontally was neutralized, partly because receivers couldn’t utilize their quickness to get into space. It also appeared Gardner Minshew II, a quarterback with a solid-but-not-superlative arm, decided there were throws he simply couldn’t make. (There were more than a couple of replays with camera angles showing medium-range sideline throws that Minshew turned down, despite routinely making those throws all season.)
I don’t think it’s an accident that WSU’s most productive drive — which covered 70 yards in its first eight plays, with two plays of 18-plus yards — was its last one before the snow started building up on the turf. James Williams and Max Borghi showed on that drive that WSU had plenty of speed to contend with UW’s defenders. Suddenly, that ability was gone.
And a defense that’s built around quick get off on the line and tremendous support from linebackers and safeties rallying quickly to the ball was pushed around up front and a step slow in the back. It’s not a coincidence that a team that has been really good at tackling seemed to consistently take terrible angles to the ball carrier. (It also didn’t help that the other running back’s best attribute is tremendous balance.)
Yes, Washington also had to play in it. But I would hope we can agree that snow is a lot less limiting to UW’s particular personnel and philosophy than it is to WSU’s.
Some of my mood, however, is a grim realization that this whole six-year situation with Washington is quite probably out of WSU’s control. Which totally sucks, but acceptance is a key part of the grieving process, right?
The last few years, I concluded that UW really just wanted it more; it appeared as if the Huskies were playing as if it was an affront to them that it would even be suggested that they could lose to WSU, while the Cougars played as if the mere sight of purple caused them to pee down their legs.
This year, I believe these Cougs really, really wanted it. I also think they battled from start to finish.
They still lost by two touchdowns. They still were outgained by a two-to-one margin.
I can’t even be mad about it anymore. I’m just ... defeated.
I think the only logical conclusion now is this one: Washington is just a horrendous matchup for WSU, and it royally sucks that it just happens to be our rival on the other side of that horrendous matchup.
It was probably never the case that UW wanted it more; we sports fans love to play couch psychologist, and it’s a stupid exercise, but it’s a lot more appealing than admitting that the other side is so superior that you simply have no chance.
Yes, there are other teams in the conference who recruit as well as Washington, and there are other teams who feature a similar run-based offense, and there are other teams who play good defense. The Cougars don’t have the same kind of trouble with them that they do with Washington; over the last four years, WSU is 0-4 against UW and 26-6 against the rest of the Pac-12.
TWENTY-SIX AND SIX!
Additionally, it’s not like Washington can’t be beaten; heck, it happened twice this season at the hands of teams the Cougars defeated. Logic would dictate that WSU shouldn’t have this much trouble beating the Huskies.
It seems to me that the our problem with Washington is a result of a really unfortunate confluence of three circumstances, creating a perfect (shit)storm for WSU:
- Washington has better overall talent; and
- Washington has excellent coaching for that talent; and
- Washington’s best talent, which already is very good overall, is in the places that cause our particular team the most trouble.
None of these are killers on their own. There are seven or eight schools in the conference that consistently recruit better than WSU. There are other good coaches in the conference. Stanford fits both of those criteria, and WSU has beaten the Cardinal three straight times.
But putting those first two together with No. 3 causes a real significant problem.
Most obviously, I don’t know what you do when you’re a pass-first-second-third team loaded with above average receivers that has to face multiple NFL draft picks on the back end every damn year. There are precisely zero weak spots to pick on.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys did an amazing job all season, and the players played their butts off. But there are limitations to scheme, and that was laid bare again versus Washington. It’s not like the Huskies are the only team in this conference with big, athletic linemen and strong, fast running backs, but they’re the only one that’s coached as well as it is. (Looking your way, USC.)
The roster would have to be built pretty differently at some key spots to stop these annual beatdowns from happening, but as long as Mike Leach is coach, I’m not sure anything changes in a meaningful way. WSU will continue to run the pure Air Raid, as it should; and WSU will continue to struggle to recruit the types of big, athletic defensive tackles that it needs to match up with UW because ... well, we’re WSU and it’s really damn hard to recruit those kinds of guys.
The thing that gets me is that if you took UW’s talent and coaches and transplanted it to USC, none of us would think much about losing to the Trojans every year. We’d say, “Well, yeah ... it’s USC. Of course.” It’s simply the fact that it’s our rival that makes us want to say things like “the Huskies wanted it more.” Everyone else in the conference is saying, “Of course Washington beats Washington State every year.” I mean, none of us is questioning why Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State every year because of course the Sooners do.
Maybe this all can change. Maybe the defense is undergoing a makeover at Claeys’ behest that we’ll start to see take shape next year. Maybe not playing in a snowstorm will allow the offense to finally give UW’s defense some fits.
Or maybe this is the way it is until Chris Petersen decides he’s bored and ready to try something else.
As I said earlier, it certainly didn’t look to me like what happened was because of a lack of effort. And as terrible as this feels as a fan, I can only imagine how the guys on that team felt and continue to feel.
“Very disappointed,” Minshew said postgame. “We had a lot riding on this game, big goals that we had set for ourselves that depended on the outcome of this game, and we just feel like we let each other down. We all wanted to win for each other, but at the end of the day, we just couldn’t do it.”
Said James Williams: “Since I’ve been here, we’ve lost to them every year, and we’ve been one game short and they’ve been in our way every single time.”
I love these guys. I just wish they’d been able to see it through just one of these times, and I hope against hope they get the ending they deserve — a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Peyton Pelluer had 10 total tackles, including seven solo. I guess that’s as good a place to go as any.
What Needs Work
MIKE LEACH’S SNOW GAME PLAN, AMIRITE??
A bowl game ... but which one? Going into the game, it seemed like the odds were very good that WSU would remain firmly in the New Year’s Six mix even with a loss. That no longer appears to be the case, with the College Football Playoff committee dropping the Cougs to No. 13.
Even if every championship game result breaks WSU’s way, the committee still has to decide that it made an error in putting WSU behind Florida and Penn State, each of whom have three losses. That really should be a no brainer, but I’m not sure what would change the CFP committee’s mind.
Our best bet might be the Fiesta Bowl approaching the committee and telling them they’d like to have WSU in the game. That’s not supposed to happen, but this is college football, after all.