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Sports >  WSU football

Commentary: The hardest part of losing the Apple Cup for Washington State fans isn’t actually the loss, it’s not winning when it matters most

Nov. 27, 2022 Updated Sun., Nov. 27, 2022 at 4:28 p.m.

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – One narrative floating around before Saturday night’s Apple Cup in Pullman was that great defense beats great offense, a truism demonstrated time and again by Jake Dickert’s predecessor’s predecessor.

That was of course former WSU head coach Mike Leach, whose cavalier “just another game” treatment of the annual Cougars-Huskies football game rang more hollow with every WSU loss, the Air Raid offense silenced seven straight times by a Huskies team that knew precisely how to stop it and had the athletes to do so.

Dickert doesn’t see the game that way, and after No. 12 Washington’s 51-33 victory Saturday he reiterated that.

“This isn’t a game that we just game plan for seven days,” Dickert said. “This is 365 days a year trying to outwork an opponent.”

The trouble for his Cougars this time, though, was that a change in strategy – indeed, seemingly a flip between the two programs – still resulted in the predictably sad, slow mournful parade of Cougars fans streaming out of Martin Stadium on a dark November night.

This has long been a one-sided rivalry, with the Huskies having now won 75 of the 114 all-time matchups. But for the last 24 years – during which nearly every current WSU student was born – the one-sidedness in itself hasn’t so much been a disappointment.

Cougars fans grow up understanding that no matter how much crimson and gray they wear on game day, the Huskies are probably going to win the Apple Cup.

What has been disappointing to fans is that the Cougars can never seem to beat the Huskies when the Huskies are actually a good football team, and that every time there really is something on the line – a Pac-12 title game appearance or a better bowl game – the Huskies win the Apple Cup, usually by a few touchdowns.

And make no mistake, this year’s version of the Huskies certainly is a very good football team, one that now has a 10-2 record and is looking at not just a better bowl game but an enviable one – if not an appearance in the Pac-12 championship game. That was denied them earlier when the Oregon State Beavers won their rivalry game (whose former name shall not be uttered here) over the Oregon Ducks.

The Ducks happen to be another team the Cougars couldn’t stop when they needed to earlier this year, mustering 624 yards in their 44-41 victory at Gesa Field on Sept. 24 (though they are a program the Cougars can seem to beat in big situations, but that discussion is for another day).

But the Huskies outdid the Ducks with their performance in Pullman, putting up 703 yards of offense at a clip of 10.3(!) yards per play against what is surely one of the best Cougar defenses since those that went to the Rose Bowl and Holiday Bowl in the early 2000s (teams that were, predictably, defeated by the Huskies).

Dickert said Saturday that he didn’t want two bad performances to sour what was statistically a great season for the Cougars defense, and he’s right. This defense is the top reason why the Cougars are 7-5 and have a bowl game still to look forward to, even if it won’t be an enviable one.

But in the same thought Dickert also said the Huskies were “one step ahead of us every step of the way,” particularly on third downs, on which Washington converted 11 of 13 times.

It is those aspects of the performance – the chunk plays on offense, the timely conversions, the opportune sacks – that made this game feel like so many of the Washington State Apple Cup losses over the last two and a half decades, even if this time it was Michael Penix Jr. throwing the ball at will and not Myles Gaskin running the ball at will.

Once again, the Cougars were unable to outplay a talented Huskies team, even when the Cougars themselves have a talented football team.

Last year’s 40-13 Cougars victory, thrilling and cathartic for its fanbase as it was, came over a Huskies team starting a true freshman quarterback who had never started a college football game before. Even the Cougars weren’t going to find a way to lose to Sam Huard (yet).

The Cougars’ 31-28 overtime victory in 2012 came over a seven-win Huskies team and gave Leach his only victory in the rivalry game (and his team’s only conference victory that season). So, kudos to the Cougars there.

But the previous four WSU victories in the series – in 2008, 2007, 2005 and 2004 – all came over bad Washington teams, none of which won more than four games.

That is a lifetime of disappointment for any children who grew up in the 2000s wearing WSU onesies, and at least a couple decades of disappointment for the parents and grandparents who dressed them.

So yes, what Dickert said after the game was an improvement, certainly, over the nonchalance of Leach. And fielding a very good defense in Pullman has long been more fruitful than fielding a good offense.

But at the end of a very long night, the result remained the same: The Huskies won in Pullman. Again.

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