PULLMAN – His 6-foot-4 frame hunched over a pair of crutches, Travis Long was a spectator for Washington State’s 31-28 victory over Washington in another thrilling Apple Cup.
It was not a position with which the senior linebacker was familiar. Long had started 47 consecutive games, every one of his career, before a right knee injury sidelined him for senior day.
So his teammates rallied around him. Played for him. And made sure that afterward, in the locker room, the Apple Cup trophy found its way into Long’s hands.
That was the plan all along.
“He works the hardest out of anyone and has the greatest passion for the game that you’ve ever seen,” said sophomore linebacker Logan Mayes, who started in Long’s place. “We won the game and we handed him the trophy. That’s all we wanted to do.”
The game balls, coach Mike Leach, will be awarded to each of WSU’s seniors. There were 12 of them honored in a pre-game ceremony, including Long and quarterback Jeff Tuel, two stalwarts who have embraced the never-say-die attitude Leach has been trying to instill in this struggling program all season.
Neither Tuel nor Long, both fourth-year players, had beaten the Huskies before.
“(We) kind of dedicated this game to our seniors, and we’re proud for them and this was the best game we played all year,” Leach said.
“We were just playing for Travis, honestly, because we knew he wouldn’t be out there and we wanted to win it for him,” said Tuel, who completed 33 of 53 passes for 350 yards. “So we had a lot to play for, honestly. This was our bowl game. We’re playing for hardware even though we have not so good of a record.”
You wouldn’t know it if you were in Pullman on Friday night. WSU’s win not only snapped an eight-game losing streak and gave the Cougars their only conference victory of the season. It also served as one final, feel-good moment for a senior class that hasn’t seen very many.
Tuel, who is still seeking a fifth-year medical waiver from the NCAA, could return next season but isn’t certain he’ll come back to WSU even if he’s granted eligibility. If he’s done here, he and the rest of his classmates will leave having been a part of just 10 victories and 38 losses in the last four seasons.
Time could never heal those wounds the way beating Washington can.
“Coming into this game I wanted to be remembered by something,” said running back Carl Winston, who rushed for three touchdowns. “Apple Cup, 2012. My senior year. Why not go out with a bang and beat the Huskies? That’s been my goal all year: to beat the Huskies. That’s a must. We want to beat the Huskies every single year we play them.”
Said Tuel: “I would have liked to have left a more winning legacy, I guess, but it’s just tough. I came here trying to rebuild the program and I truly feel like a lot of the seniors accomplished that in some senses.
“This could be the breakthrough we’ve been looking for. We really learned how to play this week. As far as my legacy goes, this Apple Cup, it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Leach hopes WSU’s underclassmen remember players like Tuel and Long.
“When you try to build something, you start out with a couple, and in our case, Travis in particular,” Leach said. “And as more and more draw from that, then pretty soon the number grows and it’s bigger and we got more people to think like that and then eventually you evolve into a tough football team instead of just one that signs up and plays.”
Call it a comeback
The 18-point deficit WSU erased in the fourth quarter was its largest such comeback since it trailed Cal 20-2 in the first quarter of a 1994 game it eventually won 26-23.
The Cougars hadn’t overcome a larger fourth-quarter deficit since scoring 20 straight points against California in 1985 to win 20-19.
And neither team has ever achieved a larger comeback in an Apple Cup game.
“That’s what football’s about,” Tuel said. “And growing as a football player and I think as a man and a person is learning how to face adversity. Things aren’t easy this season, obviously, so we really learned how to push back on it and we’d like to have this feeling at the end of the game more.”
Tuel finishes his career at WSU’s all-time leader in completion percentage at 61.4 percent. … Dominique Williams caught eight passes for a career-high 143 yards. … The 96 yards gained by UW in the first half were the fewest WSU has allowed in a first half since holding UNLV to 95 last season. … Mayes may have delivered the quote of the night, calling the win a “wedding, first-child born kind of feeling.”