Blanchette: No matter past or future, win will be savored
PULLMAN – Retailers can market the day as they see fit. But anyone who saw the 105th Apple Cup knows how it will be forever remembered.
It was Whack Friday.
Nothing was to be believed, certitude was julienned, common sense was Play-Doh doing battle against Drago’s fists. Dimensions never before explored were discovered and then discarded as simply unsuitable to host this sort of reality.
Compared to Washington State’s 31-28 overtime undressing of rival Washington, even alternate reality bites.
As ugly as this Cougars football season was? The giddy buzz over hiring the swashbuckling coach undone by the buzzkill of eight straight losses? The disharmony, the defections, the marquee player’s mutiny, the coach’s at-any-cost candor, the pratfalls and, finally, the heart-and-soul senior swinging on crutches after starting the first 47 games of his career?
Well, this day was every bit as good for the Cougs, and maybe better.
“You don’t get very many of those kinds of feelings in your life,” said linebacker Logan Mayes, reliving the sensation of seeing the population of Martin Stadium empty onto the field after the game instead of into the exits during it.
“That’s like a wedding, first-child-born kind of feeling.”
Even Wazzu president Elson Floyd had to get in on the swag, grabbing the on-field mic from coach Mike Leach amid the celebration and roaring, “We kicked the Huskies out of the place.”
A sophomore swilling a pint of Fireball might have come across as more presidential, but you can’t fault Floyd’s joyous embrace of the moment.
And that moment wouldn’t have been nearly as special had the Cougs dominated or simply led wire-to-wire over their 25th-ranked BCS rival. By peeling themselves off the canvas in the fourth quarter after committing four turnovers and falling behind by 18 points, they cemented a memory for the first-hand witnesses and themselves alike – and a place in history.
No Apple Cup among the first 104 produced a bigger comeback.
Which means, of course, there has never been a more frightful meltdown, either.
It’s hard to imagine a team has played with less discipline, poise, smarts and sense of mission than the Huskies did in the fourth quarter, summarized all pretty neatly on a third-and-1 play in the final minute when they were driving for what would have been the winning score.
Out of a timeout, coach Steve Sarkisian concocted a rush-to-the-line-of-scrimmage gimmick, presumably to goose the itchy Cougars offsides, only to see tackle Micah Hatchie flagged for a false start.
Moments later, kicker Travis Coons sliced a 35-yarder out of a tough lie – company for Chuck Nelson’s 30-year-old misery.
Then came overtime, and UW quarterback Keith Price’s misbegotten pass while in the grip of Mayes that was snatched out of the air by Kalafitoni Pole, who steered his 280 pounds rumbling toward the end zone. That he was hauled down 5 yards short was all that dragged the finish out of the realm of the fantastic, but at least the run-up to Andrew Furney’s winning field goal allowed Cougars emotions to carbonate properly.
This would be a good spot to mention the Huskies piling up 129 yards in penalties. Nearly half of those came in the two WSU touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.
Wave the flag, indeed. But just as stunning as Washington’s willies was seeing the Cougars in nervy control of their destiny.
For all that was made of the emotional touchstone of playing for the injured Travis Long (“I just hope I made him proud tonight,” said Mayes, his replacement), the moment belonged as much to quarterback Jeff Tuel.
He has been every bit the good soldier in an overmatched army and admirably resolved while he and Connor Halliday were yanked around this season. In what’s likely to be his last game, Tuel overcame a blizzard of drops by his receivers and two picks that weren’t his fault.
“Football’s not easy and it’s not always going to go your way, and neither is life,” he said. “Things weren’t easy this season, and I think we learned how to push back on it.”
Leach, of course, wants more evidence; once is not enough. He was happy enough to note that “a lot of folks counted us out,” and now he has an extra $25,000 bonus from his contract to lavish on the family this Christmas.
Maybe this will be the launching pad for Leach’s program, and if the Cougs make it that more power to them. But that almost does the day injustice.
This will stand on its own.
“I remember as a little kid being so heartbroken when we lost these games,” said Mayes, the son of a College Football Hall of Famer. “Right when we won, the first thing I thought of actually was there’s some little kid up there (in the stands) who’s going to be happy for the next three days.”
Three days? Whack Friday figures to linger longer than that.
The Associated Press Sports Editors picked sports columnist John Blanchette as one of its top 10 columnists of 2012. This is one of the columns that won him that award. Here are the others: