PULLMAN – The glass can be either half full or half empty, but the bowl, well, there are no half measures.
So for the Washington State Cougars, empty.
And it had to feel every bit of that Saturday evening.
Having rallied from 10 points down in the final 3 1-2 minutes behind more wild-west gun-slinging from their own Doc Halliday, the Cougars somehow got ambushed in Anticlimax Canyon. They might have scored the winning touchdown, but for some reason the crack Pac-12 Conference replay cabal declined to review a thoroughly reviewable play. They might have tried again themselves for the winning TD, but declined the all-or-nothing risk in the final three seconds.
They might have won anyway, but declined to engage at all in the overtime.
So they lost to Utah 30-27 on a foregone conclusion field goal and summoned no sustaining magic from the Ghost of Snow Bowl Past – the 1992 Apple Cup that remains a primo moment in Wazzu football history.
The question remains, is there a primo moment in the foreseeable future?
Not that surging into the Gildan New Mexico Bowl would have qualified as primo – provided the Cougs even would have been selected with a bowl-eligible record. In fact, wouldn’t that have been the most delicious irony of all for the Paul Wulff supporters who have been bloodied by his critics for so many years: WSU with the requisite six wins, but passed over because the butts-in-seats performance of its fan base has been so indifferent?
Ah, the what-ifs of football.
The best the Cougars can now realize from this odd, whipsaw season is a 5-7 finish, and only if rival Washington continues to, uh, un-trend at its current pace next week in the Apple Cup. Five wins would be three more than a year ago, a not insignificant jump, with others left on the table in either near-misses (Utah, UCLA) or no-shows (Cal, Oregon State).
Perhaps that’s why linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis was slightly less than effusive when asked if the program was on track.
“We’ll see,” he hedged. “We’ve still got one more game, and it’s very important to all of us. That will probably determine a lot of my feelings.”
Hmm. He must have been channeling his inner Bill Moos there.
The Cougars athletic director, as he did a year ago, will gather evidence for another week before announcing his call on the program’s leadership, even as the anonymous torch-and-tar mob continues in its role as Lee Corso’s vocabulary coach.
How much Saturday’s events will factor in specifically can’t be known, but the debits and credits continue to accrue at about the same rate.
The progress of the program can be gauged by the simple fact that, employing its third quarterback of the year, WSU beat a bowl team last week and came within a shrugged-off replay of doing it again.
Not that there was really much resemblance in freshman Connor Halliday’s two performances. Last week, he threw four touchdowns; this week, four interceptions. Three of those came in the first half when the Cougar defense had the Utes in a straightjacket and Wazzu could have established some control.
For you numbers freaks, Halliday’s quarterback rating against Arizona State: 226.93. Against Utah: 91.58.
And yet it never gets to overtime if he’s not commanding in those last two drives – against a defense that smacked him around but good.
“For a young kid who got hit as much as he did – he was getting killed back there,” said receiver Jared Karstetter, “he kept extending plays. That’s what got us back in the game.”
That toughness – which spilled over to any number of Cougs who had splendid days – made the overtime swoon all the more troubling.
On first down, offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy ordered up maximum protection – seven blockers – on a wheel route and still three Utes came crashing through to harass Halliday. On second down, a screen pass, the Cougars lined the back up on the wrong side. Halliday took a grounding call throwing the ball away, and then threw pick No. 4 heaving it deep.
Nothing in that mess smacked of progress.
The vote here would have been to go for the final-yard touchdown in regulation. The grand gesture is always more satisfying than the percentage play, even if both can be defensible.
Which, probably, is why so much weight is given to wins and bowl berths and not simply, well, progress.
“It hurts knowing that I’ll never know what a bowl feels like as a player,” said Hoffman-Ellis.
It’s not a half-empty hurt, either.