Progress makes Cougs' Apple Cup less rotten

Jeff Tuel

IT WAS A shared sentiment among Cougar and Husky fans alike: The boys are back. But which ones?

While Washington fans were rejoicing over a second consecutive Apple Cup win -- one that made them bowl eligible, no less -- after their 35-28 win Saturday in Pullman, Washington State faithful took some solace in the fact that it was anyone's game right to the end.

The Cougars hung right in there, at one point even tying 28-all.

It didn't change the end result, but in a season measured more by mistakes and blown chances than yards and touchdowns, it was something.

IT WAS PROGRESS.

Especially after a two-week bye.

"I think we were a little bit rusty, but once we got going, we were running," said sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel, who completed 25 of 35 passes for 298 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, in a postgame radio interview. "It just takes a few plays and we were back in it."

Getting back into it didn't come quickly, though. WSU trailed 14-0 in the waning moments of the first half and Cougar Nation was on the verge of a meltdown. For the second straight year, the Huskies looked to be plowing them into the loss category faster than the few flurries of snow were falling onto the field.

But then, at least for the Huskies, hell froze over, and the Cougars kicked it into gear.

AN 80-YARD DRIVE was capped by a 5-yard touchdown pass from Tuel to junior wide receiver Jared Karstetter with 28 seconds left in the second quarter to reduce the deficit to 14-7 -- and give the fans some hope.

"It's a funny thing, momentum," Karstetter said in a postgame interview with The Spokesman-Review. "You start to get that feeling in the back of your mind that we can move the ball on these guys and we can do it."

Coach Paul Wulff agreed.

"Our kids fought hard," he said in a postgame radio interview. "God, our kids fought, fought, fought."

UNDAUNTED, THE HUSKIES kicked off the third quarter with a 66-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jake Locker to wide receiver Jermaine Kearse with 13:32 remaining in the third quarter.

"Jake was running the ball with more authority," Wulff noted after the game.

But Tuel got back to work, hitting junior wide receiver Daniel Blackledge with a 14-yard pass to make the score 21-14 with 5:53 left in the third.

WSU had a chance to tie the game when Locker fumbled on fourth-and-goal at the WSU 1 on the first play of the fourth quarter, but they were unable to convert when senior defensive end Kevin Kooyman recovered it to the WSU 49-yard line.

"The big play in the fourth quarter to return the ball was a big turn in events," Wulff said. "We tried to make something happen and we didn't. They made some key stops that ultimately were the difference in the game.

THE COUGARS WERE then terrorized once more by sophomore running back Chris Polk, who spent the night dashing across the field and breaking tackles en route to the second-best rushing game in UW's history with a career-best 284 yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns.

Polk's 57-yard touchdown run put the Huskies up by 14 points with 13:18 left in the game. He also had a 2-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.

Kooyman called Polk "a tough back."

"He can get up in the hole and hit you," he said. "Then when he gets out in the open, he can run."

It was something that clearly didn't please Wulff.

"These guys have more of a two- or three-prong issue here," he said in a comparison to Oregon State, which has one just threat in the running game, Jacquizz Rodgers, whereas the Huskies have Locker, Polk and freshman running back Jesse Callier. "We missed too many tackles. That was a big part of it."

But Tuel once again dug in his heels and quickly led a 10-play scoring drive, capped by a 1-yard touchdown plunge to get the Cougars back within seven. The Cougars then held the Huskies' offense to three-and-out and took possession once again at their own 27 with 7:20 left in the game.

ONCE MORE, BLACKLEDGE stepped in, with catches of 32 and 26 yards to move the Cougars inside the UW 20. Tuel then hooked up with freshman wide receiver Marquess Wilson on a 16-yard pass to tie the score 28-all.

"He made some big plays," Tuel said of Blackledge, who finished with seven catches for 132 yards. "We're going to miss him."

With the clock winding down, it fell to yet another match-up between Kearse and cornerback Nolan Washington. The two had met in the first quarter when Kearse, a junior, outbattled the WSU freshman on a fake-punt pass just prior to UW's second touchdown.

This time, they were stride for stride down the sideline -- until the end zone. Kearse stepped away, snagged the ball and got the win.

"He pushed off at the last minute and, when I looked up, the ball was behind me and I couldn't get to it," Washington said in a postgame interview with The Spokesman-Review.

Despite the outcome, Tuel said he feels the team has showed marked improvement this season, and said that he is excited about a "hard working" offseason for the team.

"We couldn't really go anywhere but up," he said.

NOTABLE NOTES:



  • Tuel's 298 passing yards tied for his second-most of the season. He threw for 311 yards against UCLA and 298 against Stanford.

  • Polk's season total of 1,238 yards makes him the first rusher in UW history to break the 1,000-yard mark in each of his first two seasons.
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