IF THERE EVER were a referendum game, this would be it. A win for Washington State would have shown tangible progress — at least in the win-loss column — under coach Paul Wulff and more importantly might have ended rumors about his job security. But that did not occur Saturday as Washington won the Apple Cup, 35-28, at Martin Stadium.
With the Huskies ahead 21-14 and facing fourth-and-goal at WSU’s 2-yard line, they needed just a field goal to take a two-score lead early in the fourth quarter.
Inexplicably, the Huskies elected to go for it.
The snap was fumbled by quarterback Jake Locker and recovered by senior defensive end Kevin Kooyman and returned to the Cougars’ 49.
“Don’t fumble,” said Kooyman, reflecting on the play in a postgame radio interview. “I just wanted to give the ball to our offense.”
But WSU (2-10 overall, 1-8 Pac-10) could not capitalize on the miscue as two short-yardage plays on third and fourth down failed to net a first down.
“I think we wanted to be aggressive and had enough momentum to take a shot,” Wulff said.
IT WAS ONE of several missed opportunities by the Cougars, but none was more significant.
UW running back Chris Polk immediately took advantage of the failed conversion as he rushed for a 57-yard touchdown. It was the fifth play from scrimmage that went for 30 yards or greater for the Huskies, and it gave them a 28-14 lead.
WSU responded with touchdowns on consecutive drives on a 1-yard run by quarterback Jeff Tuel, who completed 25 of 35 passes for 298 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, and later on a 16-pass from him to true freshman Marquess Wilson to tie the game at 28.
But not since the 2005 Apple Cup — a 26-22 win by the Cougars at Husky Stadium — has a No. 1 dominated the running game in this rivalry. Unfortunately for WSU, it was not Jerome Harrison this time, but someone in white and purple. Polk had 36- and 15-yard carries before Locker found wide receiver Jermaine Kearse for a 27-yard touchdown pass to finish the scoring. Polk rushed for a career-high 284 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries.
The Huskies (6-6, 5-4), who earned a bowl berth with their victory, always seemed to eventually have a response for any momentum built by WSU.
“I think we found ourselves behind too many times,” Wulff said during a postgame radio interview. “Every time we would score, they would answer.”
UW needed just three plays to score to open the second half as WSU blitzed from the outside and Locker found Kearse down the vacated middle for a 66-yard touchdown pass to take a 21-7 lead.
But the Cougars later responded with a nine-play drive that culminated with consecutive 20- and 14-yard passes from Tuel to senior wide receiver Daniel Blackledge, who had a career game with 132 yards on seven receptions. The latter resulted in touchdown that cut WSU’s deficit to 21-14.
UW used a 16-play drive that spanned 98 yards to take a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. The crucial play came on fourth-and-1 with the Huskies at WSU’s 17-yard line. Sophomore defensive end Travis Long appeared to have Locker stopped for a loss, but the latter broke loose for a 6-yard gain. Two plays later, Polk scored on a 2-yard run.
“Jake Locker is a man out here,” Wulff said during a halftime radio interview. “He’s the difference in the game right now.”
The Huskies second touchdown again was the result of a successful fourth-down play. After senior linebacker Myron Beck stopped Locker short of a first down, punter Kiel Rasp found Kearse for a 30-yard completion. Locker scored on the ensuing play on a 7-yard run to put UW up 14-0.
After another three-and-out for WSU, Locker again drove the Huskies into the red zone. Another score might have given UW an insurmountable lead and momentum into halftime. But Locker was pressured by Long and his pass was intercepted by true freshman safety Deone Bucannon.
Tuel seized the momentum.
Using a series that was reminiscent of the Cougars’ 31-14 win Nov. 14 at Oregon State, he used a pair of first-down scrambles before finding junior wide receiver Jared Karstetter for a 5-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds left in the half.
BUT THERE WERE far too many breakdowns on both sides of the ball. Fans and media were left to speculate on Wulff’s future.
A win might have prevented that.
Former WSU coach Jim Walden maintained in the postgame radio show that Wulff should be retained.
“You would have to be a hate monger to not realize how far this team has come since August,” he said. “It’s just overwhelming to me.”
Whether WSU athletic director Bill Moos and president Elson Floyd feel the same way remains to be determined.
“We’ll plan on meeting tomorrow and maybe Monday a bit,” said Wulff, referring to a discussion about where the program is at. “That’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME: Kearse's touchdown catch came with just 44 seconds remaining in the game.
CATCH OF THE GAME: Kearse's touchdown reception from Locker was the winning score.
STAT OF THE GAME: Polk's career-high 284 yards on 29 carries enabled the Huskies to win the Apple Cup.
MISLEADING STAT OF THE GAME: UW only converted 4 of 13 third downs, but always seemed to come up with big plays when needed.
LEADING TACKLERS: Bucannon, cornerback Aire Justin and linebackers Alex Hoffman-Ellis and Myron Beck each had seven tackles.