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Analysis: Washington thrives in ‘random’ Apple Cup as Washington State falls short of Pac-12 North title

PULLMAN – One by one, the Washington Huskies spilled from the sideline to the turf. In bright purple pants and gold helmets, they slid through the white slush covering the green turf in Pullman.

Some skied through the frost layer on their bellies while others fell onto their backs, creating snow angels on top of a barely visible Cougars logo at midfield. Just about every UW player took this opportunity to go on a joyride through the snow after a sixth consecutive victory over Washington State – and a second Pac-12 North championship in three years.

The Cougars, and their division title hopes, were frozen out in the 111th Apple Cup – 28-15 this time by a Husky team that reinforced it can still beat WSU by running the ball downhill and by playing an aggressive, physical brand of defense that seems to be the perfect match for Mike Leach and his high-volume throwing offense.

Giant snowflakes that grew to the size of Post-It notes probably didn’t help the Cougars or their graduate transfer quarterback, and for the first time since he took the reins of Washington State’s starting job, Gardner Minshew failed to throw a touchdown pass.

“I think that the conditions like that, it becomes kind of random, as far as where the ball goes and what’s sorted out and who reacts where,” Leach said. “… When you’re in conditions like that, it’s kind of a random game, either you slip or the other guy slips.”

Minshew’s Heisman Trophy campaign took a dent – maybe the only one of the season – as the East Carolina transfer threw two interceptions, fumbled once and had a season-low 152 passing yards. Minshew and the Cougars were outgained 487-237 by a UW team that went to its bread and butter 27 times throughout the course of the game.

“I felt like we didn’t do enough to win, specifically on offense,” Minshew said. “I felt like we had our chances, I just keep going back in my mind looking at plays, and I’m definitely disappointed.”

Myles Gaskin, the most valuable UW player in at least three of these last four Apple Cups, finished with 27 carries for 170 yards and scored three more touchdowns, becoming the first running back in Pac-12 Conference history to rush for 1,000 yards in four seasons.

“Myles Gaskin, what can you say?” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “… He’s the ultimate competitor. When you need something good to happen, he’s going to get it done.”

Gaskin, a senior tailback, has rushed 100 times for 550 yards and 10 touchdowns in four games against the Cougars. Gaskin was up to 67 yards by halftime of Friday’s game and had only 17 in the second half when he effectively sealed the Huskies’ win, breaking free for an 80-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter to make it 28-15.

“On that play, he made a good cut and followed his blockers,” WSU safety Skyler Thomas said. “I came down my gap, he came inside my gap and he just made a good cut. He’s a good running back and he’s explosive, so once he got to that crease he was gone.”

UW led 14-7 at halftime and threatened to pull away in the early stages of the third quarter. A long strike from quarterback Jake Browning to tight end Hunter Bryant gained 59 yards, and a nifty double pass saw Browning throw laterally to Aaron Fuller, who then heaved a 22-yard touchdown to Bryant in the end zone.

It would’ve been another 14-point lead for UW, but the Huskies’ PAT was blocked and Hunter Dale ran it back the other way for a defensive 2-point conversion to give the Cougars two points and make it 20-9.

The Cougars still had a fighting chance – something they’ve not been able to say three quarters into their last four Apple Cup losses.

WSU forced its third turnover of the game when Willie Taylor III strip-sacked Browning, allowing Dillon Sherman to recover the ball on the Huskies’ 23-yard line. The Cougars worked quickly on their next drive and the second touchdown of the game from James Williams, a 1-yard end zone plunge, cut UW’s advantage to 20-15.

Twice, WSU had chances to take its first lead of the game. But Minshew was intercepted by UW linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven on the first drive and the Cougars were foiled on their next one.

Gaskin spoiled everything for WSU with his 22nd carry of the game, crushing the Cougars’ dreams as he jolted through a hole and ran off into the snow, scoring his third touchdown 80 yards later.

“Very disappointed,” Minshew said, “ ’cause we had a lot riding on this game. Big goals that we had set for ourselves, that kind of depended on the outcome of this game and we just felt like we let each other down, and we all wanted to win for each other but at the end of the day we couldn’t do it.”

The Cougars finish the regular season 10-2 and 7-2 in Pac-12 play. They’ll still play in their best bowl game of the Leach era, with a chance to become the first 11-win team in school history.

But they won’t have the opportunity the Huskies have. UW (9-3, 7-2) will play Utah in the Pac-12 championship game with a chance to head to its first Rose Bowl since 2001.