SEATTLE – An Apple Cup game can alter a career. It can redeem a season. It can exhilarate or haunt.
Or it can just be more of the same, a continuation of the season gone by.
Such was the case Saturday for the Washington State Cougars.
The mistakes that have plagued the Cougars this season – dropped passes, missed tackles, poor execution and more – all showed up once again before 68,697 in Husky Stadium.
The result was a 30-0 defeat in a season of them, ending Washington State’s 2009 at 1-11 and 0-9 in the Pac-10, the second consecutive year the Apple Cup loser has finished with that conference mark.
“It is the story of the year,” said senior running back Dwight Tardy of the Cougars’ lack of execution. “It’s sickening.”
If the game was a microcosm of the season, then one play on the Cougars’ first drive represented the game as a whole.
After WSU forced the Huskies to punt on their opening possession – the first time the defense has turned that trick all season – the Cougars moved to the UW 34-yard line.
On first-and-10, Kevin Lopina handed to Tardy running right. Tardy slammed on the brakes, turned and tossed a lateral back to Lopina. The senior quarterback planted and uncorked a pass downfield, toward Gino Simone, open at the 3-yard line.
Simone tried to climb the ladder, but the bit-too-long pass glanced off his hands and fell into the end zone. As it fell to the turf, WSU’s chance to lead a regulation game for the first time this year bounced away as well. Two penalties and two ineffective plays later, WSU punted.
“We really should have hit Simone on the first one,” said offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy. “It was a great look. We had him, had him wide open. Didn’t hit it. We need to hit that. It could have really helped us in this football game.”
It was big because of the ongoing problems faced by the Cougar defense.
“I think it’s pretty clear the team is crippled as far as injuries, and the team is,” said center Kenny Alfred, who made his 44th, and last, start for WSU. “I know it’s a tired thing to talk about. I understand that. But at the same time it’s true.”
The defense entered the game with only a couple experienced players available for relief and then lost safety Chima Nwachukwu (ankle) again in the second half.
But that might not have been the worst of it. The group had to face Jake Locker.
“The difference in the game was No. 10 on their team,” said WSU coach Paul Wulff, referring to Locker. “He runs it, throws it … He’s almost a one-man show out there. He was the difference, period.”
But it took Locker and the UW offense three possessions, and a big assist from a Lopina interception, to make a difference.
That pick, the third of the season by linebacker Mason Foster, put the Huskies (4-7, 3-5) at the WSU 13. But three plays netted just 7 yards and Erik Folk was forced to kick the first of his three field goals.
Locker didn’t need much help, or time, to get the next score. Starting at its own 15, UW covered the 85 yards in three plays, the final 50 on a Locker-to-Jermaine Kearse bomb down the middle when the safeties closed on a shorter crossing route.
It was the Huskies’ longest scoring pass of the year.
Locker, who missed some open receivers early on a windy day, finished 16 of 28 for 196 yards.
But, as the Cougar defense wore down in the second half, UW turned to the run.
Chris Polk became the first Husky freshman to top 1,000 yards with a 13-yard fourth-quarter run, finishing with 130 yards on 25 carries. He had 31 on 11 totes in the first half. The Huskies had 222 yards rushing after halftime, including 82 of Locker’s 94, his final 15 on UW’s last score.
“Every time (Polk) ran the ball, he got 3 or 4 yards and that kind of chips away at a defense,” said safety Xavier Hicks, whose third-quarter interception of Locker kept UW out of the end zone. “In the end, if it was third-and-short, they were able to pick up first downs by just giving him the ball.”
The offense was wearing down as well, though running out might be a better term.
With freshman Jeff Tuel already sidelined with a knee problem, first Lopina – he suffered a stinger when hit on the interception – then Marshall Lobbestael – knocked woozy on a second-quarter, 11-yard scramble – were forced to the sidelines.
Lopina returned when Lobbestael left, only to tear his oblique muscle when driven to the ground by Cameron Elisara after throwing a pass.
In came fourth-string quarterback Dan Wagner to hand off four times to end the half.
Lobbestael returned to start the second half and finished, but it didn’t matter. WSU was shut out in the Apple Cup for the first time since 1964.
“Straight up, we didn’t execute,” Tardy said.
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