For the second straight season, the Cougars brought a 9-1 record -- and the role of favorite -- into its annual showdown with Washington and wound up folding like the proverbial K mart deck chair.
But this one, in front of a packed and vocal Martin Stadium crowd, was far different than a year ago. Despite a plethora of mistakes and a frustrating inability to capitalize on opportunities, No. 3-ranked WSU still led by 10 with just more than four minutes left and the Huskies pinned on their own eight.
Indeed, it seemed that destiny would be fulfilled on this chilly Palouse night, even though the Cougs lost starting running back Jermaine Green in the first half and field general Jason Gesser mid-way through the fourth quarter.
We won't punish you with the painful details of this triple-overtime heartbreaker, but in the end, Washington's unrelenting pass rush -- which had sacked and pressured-up-a-storm all day -- came through again. With the Cougars trailing 29-26 in the final overtime period, back-up quarterback Matt Kegel fired a pass to his left toward a wide-open receiver, but the ball was batted down in a flurry of Husky defenders. Controversy ensued as the ball hit the turf. Was it an incomplete pass? A fumble? A lateral?
The officials ruled it a "backward forward pass" (i.e. a lateral, and therefore a live ball) and proclaimed Husky end Kai Ellis the rightful owner of the pigskin.
Game over. Season of destiny undone.
The Huskies tasted victory for the fifth straight time in this series, forcing WSU to wait until December 7 at UCLA to try to clinch a Rose Bowl berth.
Ironically, the Cougars led 17-7 at halftime -- the same score that Washington led by on this same field 20 years ago this week when they were the nationally prominent team looking to secure the Pac-10 title, only to come away empty.
The Huskies, themselves mighty sloppy most of the day, nonetheless played tough and controlled ball most of the second half.
The Cougars, though, imploded on offense. Compounding the misery of it all, the game appeared all but won by the Cougars when Husky punter Derrick McLaughlin dropped a snap deep in his own end of the field with just more than seven minutes left to play. Coupled with a UW penalty, the Cougars took over at the Husky one.
A false start penalty pushed the Cougars back to the six. A running play went for zero. And then Kegel was sacked, forcing the Cougars to settle for a Drew Dunning field goal that made it 20-10.
That wasn't the only giant opportunity squandered by the Cougars. They drove to the Husky one-yard line just before the end of the first half and came away with nothing after muffing the snap on a Dunning field goal attempt.
The list of Cougar miscues, both big and small, will no doubt haunt the faithful for decades to come. Two of the most critical came via pass interceptions -- one thrown by Gesser on his first toss of the day that set the Huskies up for their first touchdown, and the second thrown by Kegel late in the fourth quarter that led to a John Anderson field goal that knotted the game at 20 with less than a minute remaining in the game.
While far from perfect, the Cougar defense -- led by Marcus Trufant -- played a stout and spirited game, repeatedly bailing out the sputtering Cougar O. Though in the end, you had to wonder what might have been if they hadn’t roughed Anderson earlier in the game on what would have been his fourth missed field goal attempt of regulation play. On the retry, he made it.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
Such was the maddening way this game played itself out.
Husky players partied at midfield like they just won the national title. Their fans snickered at their Cougar counterparts with an age-old taunt.
For the unwashed, it's a term dating to the Jim Sweeney-era, derisively saddled on WSU for its inexplicable ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda.