PULLMAN – Washington State’s one-year reign as Apple Cup champion came to a bitter end, and the Cougars’ 2022 regular season concluded with a thud.
Washington’s high-powered offense outclassed a typically strong Cougars defense during the highest-scoring Apple Cup in the rivalry series’ 114-game history, a 51-33 Husky victory Saturday night at Gesa Field.
“This one hurts,” Cougars edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. said after the Huskies claimed their 11th win over WSU in the past 13 meetings, avenging a blowout loss last year in Seattle. “We’re sorry we couldn’t get that one done.”
The Huskies (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12), ranked ninth in the latest AP Top 25 poll, closed their first regular season under coach Kalen DeBoer on a six-game winning streak and moved into a tie for third place in the conference standings. There’s a chance UW is picked to represent the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl game.
WSU (7-5, 4-5) had won three consecutive games before running into another conference heavyweight. The Cougars finished their first full campaign under coach Jake Dickert at seventh in the Pac-12 standings. They compiled a 4-0 record against the bottom half of the conference and went 0-5 against the Pac-12’s five best teams.
“We’ve been in a lot of different games against a lot of really good opponents,” Dickert said. “I think everyone realizes the Pac-12 might be the premier conference this year in the country. Yes, we lost to five top-20 teams, but at the end of the day, we gotta do what we need to, to get over that hump. It’s about building this roster going forward.”
The Cougars, who secured a bowl bid for the seventh consecutive full season, will learn their postseason destination Dec. 4 during a bowl selection show.
“There’s not a single adverse moment that our guys aren’t ready for, and we got great leadership in there, we got a great senior crew and we’ll be ready to play in the bowl game,” Dickert said. “This one should hurt. This one should sting. We’ll have the ability to move on.”
WSU will use the next few weeks to develop its young roster and celebrate its outgoing players, 13 of whom were honored Saturday during senior night – including nickel Armani Marsh and seventh-year receiver Renard Bell, who missed the game due to injuries but might have a chance to return for the Cougars’ finale next month.
“They are part of the original four seniors that came here out of high school and made it all the way through,” Dickert said, the emotion plain in his voice.
The other two WSU mainstays to whom he was referring are defensive tackle Christian Mejia and offensive tackle Jarrett Kingston, who sustained a season-ending injury earlier this month.
“It hurts me that those three guys couldn’t be out there for their senior night and their last game in the stadium. Those three guys, their impact they’ve had on me, they’ve had on this team and this place – to not be out there is obviously a big loss.”
Usually solid WSU defense crumbles
The Cougars had their worst defensive showing of the year. Not only that – WSU had one of its worst defensive performances of the past two decades.
UW amassed 703 yards on 67 snaps for an average of 10.5 yards per play.
Since 2000, only two opponents have totaled more yards in a game against WSU. Oregon piled up 719 yards in a 62-38 win over the Cougars in 2013. USC accumulated 745 yards during a 55-13 rout of WSU in 2005.
Over the past 22 years, the Cougars have given up more than 10.5 yards per play in just one game, allowing 11.5 ypp in a 58-37 loss to Arizona in 2017.
UW’s prolific offense sliced through a WSU defense that had been one of the Pac-12’s best for much of the season. The Cougars led the conference in scoring defense and sat in the upper half in each of the league’s defensive stat categories.
But WSU had no answers for Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and his star-studded receiving corps. The Cougars surrendered a season-high 485 passing yards. UW pass-catchers used double moves to shake off WSU defensive backs, and Penix often had a clean pocket to unleash deep balls.
Cougars safeties were beaten over the top. Marsh’s absence was glaring. The Huskies picked on his backup – sophomore Armauni Archie, who made his first-career start. Penix went 6 of 14 for 259 yards and two long touchdowns on attempts that traveled more than 15 yards through the air.
“We went into it trying to take away some easy throws,” Dickert said. “They were making more plays (against man coverage), so we switched a little bit to zone and they kept us off-balance. I don’t care whatever zone you play, when you go 40 yards down the field, it’s going to be man-to-man.”
The Cougars couldn’t generate much pressure with a four-man rush, failing to record a sack for just the second game this season, and their DBs struggled to keep pace with UW receivers down the field in one-on-one matchups.
“We obviously didn’t hit (Penix), didn’t affect him,” Dickert said. “I think he’s one of the best deep-ball passers in the country and he went out there and showed that again.”
There were few, if any, faults in UW’s offensive performance. The Huskies exploited the Cougars on the ground, too. WSU yielded a season-high 218 rushing yards and did not record a TFL – the Cougars had registered at least three TFLs in every other game. They finished the season with a conference-most 74 TFLs.
The Huskies scored on 8 of 11 possessions and converted 11 of 13 third-down plays. They punted once – on their first drive of the game – and committed turnovers on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter.
“Not being able to get them off the field was a big issue,” Dickert said. “Besides a couple of takeaways in the second half … we just never got them off-balance.
“They had plans with the looks we were giving them. We were one step behind.”
UW came into the game with the nation’s No. 1 passing offense and a top-five total offense in the FBS. The Huskies had their most productive game of the year, and climbed to No. 2 in the country in total offense (521 yards per game).
Of course, WSU’s defensive numbers took a major hit. The Cougs fell to third in the conference in points allowed (22.4) after occupying first in that column for the past five weeks. WSU had made significant progress throughout the year in its ability to contain explosive passing offenses, but its coverage came apart at the seams in its regular-season finale. The Cougars plummeted to ninth in the conference and 113th nationally in passing defense (266.7 yards per game).
“It’s not good enough,” Dickert said. “I’m not going to let one bad performance sour all the good we’ve done (defensively). … Credit to them. They went up there and made the plays and obviously, it’s not where we want to be. It’s tough to take in this moment. We just probably haven’t played as well as a team. When the defense is rolling, we haven’t scored. When we’re scoring, we haven’t had the defense moving.”
Second-half woes surface again
For the first 30 minutes, WSU and UW exchanged blows in a shootout featuring a steady stream of offensive fireworks, seven lead changes and eight consecutive scoring drives.
For the final 30 minutes, the Cougars showed only sparse signs of offensive rhythm while the UW attack continued to produce highlight-reel plays.
“Our playmakers just made plays in the first half that kept the chains rolling,” slotback Robert Ferrel said. “I feel like our play-calling was good all day. We just didn’t make enough plays in the second half.”
WSU scored on 5 of 6 drives in the first half and registered 304 yards during one of its most impressive halves of the year.
The Cougars logged nine of their 13 “big plays” – runs of 10-plus yards and passes of 15-plus yards – before halftime.
WSU wasn’t too crisp in the first quarter as quarterback Cameron Ward dealt with some accuracy issues, but the Cougars used a special-teams trick play to kickstart the offense and set up a TD late in the period. Punter Nick Haberer lofted a pass to linebacker Daiyan Henley, a former receiver at Nevada, for 36 yards. The Cougars had saved that play for the Apple Cup, Dickert noted.
After that drive, WSU’s Air Raid offense settled into a groove behind Ward, who dodged traffic in the backfield and completed 11 of 12 passes for 125 yards and two TDs during one stretch in the second quarter.
The Cougars went into intermission trailing 28-27. At that point, there had to have been concern among the WSU faithful, whose offense had been prone to second-half lapses throughout the season. During wins over Arizona State and Arizona in the last two weeks, the Cougars’ offense started hot but managed a combined 175 yards and three points after halftime.
Could they sustain their production for two more quarters and keep pace with one of the nation’s top offensive outfits?
The Cougars were unable to reverse the trend.
They came up empty on 5 of 6 drives in the second half, punting three times and committing two turnovers on downs late. WSU capitalized on a third-quarter takeaway at midfield for its lone scoring drive of the second half – the only second-half TD from the Cougars’ first-team offense over the past four weeks. Otherwise, WSU netted 110 yards on 30 plays across five second-half possessions. Overall, the Cougars averaged 3.3 yards per play in the second half against 10.8 yards per play for the Huskies.
“Just not doing our jobs individually,” Ward said of the second half. “Whether it’s me … whether it’s (offensive coordinator Eric Morris), everyone is responsible for it. We all take accountability.
“Just our execution in the second half – we weren’t able to stay ahead of the chains. In this offense, it’s hard to get behind the chains and try to be successful. Going into the bowl game, we just have to preach that: stay ahead of the chains, don’t get in third-and-longs.”
The Huskies logged two tackles for loss in the first half but came up with nine TFLs in the second half, including five sacks. They held WSU to 0 net rushing yards after the break. Starting tailback Nakia Watson was a bright spot, as he’s been for the past four weeks, but his usage declined after halftime. He seemed to be dealing with a nagging injury. Watson touched the ball on eight plays in the second half, totaling 37 yards and a touchdown. He had 77 yards and a score on 14 touches in the first half.
UW’s standout pass-rushers outplayed WSU’s freshmen tackles, and pressure off the edges finally caught up to Ward, who had done well to avoid defenders in the backfield during the first half.
“(UW’s) pass rush leaned on us as we went into the second half,” Dickert said. “That was probably the biggest difference. Cam made some big-time plays in the first half that kept us going, some fourth downs that were just incredible, and we just didn’t make those types of incredible plays to win the game.”
UW never relinquished the lead in the second half. Although the deficit stayed within reach until the midway point of the fourth quarter, the Cougars lacked the momentum necessary to make a serious push, failing to reach UW’s 40-yard line on each of their final three possessions.
“We didn’t play our best brand of football on offense today,” Ward said. “We could have helped the defense out a little bit more.”