SEATTLE — According to the Cougars’ party line, the annual Apple Cup is just another game on their schedule, exactly the same as the 11 that precede it.
In reality, Apple Cups resemble nothing but themselves.
Recent history again repeated itself Friday as Washington State and its generally productive offense managed only one touchdown in a 31-13 loss to Washington, the Cougars’ seventh consecutive belly-flop in their intrastate rivalry game.
Even the aftermath felt familiar, as WSU players criticized themselves for betraying their party line and allowing Apple Cup hype to ruin their composure.
“Sometimes, some guys just put their heads down — it drives me nuts,” running back Max Borghi said. “A full game is four quarters. The other team scores, it’s no big deal. There’s so much time left on the clock.”
Anthony Gordon agreed.
“As a team, as a group, we need to collectively treat this like any other opponent,” the quarterback said. “We do a great job throughout the year doing it. So (we) need to relax but also be urgent at the same time, if that makes sense.”
This time, the Cougs couldn’t blame the weather. Frigid but sunny conditions prevailed as a crowd of 70,931 watched the Huskies dominate as convincingly as they’d done in a snowstorm in Pullman a year ago. They stretched to six their streak of Apple Cup wins here.
On too many plays, WSU coach Mike Leach said, nine players would execute correctly and two would not. And the miscues compounded themselves.
“We’d overcorrect and try to do too much, and all of a sudden it’s a frantic effort,” he said. “It’s hard to execute when you do it that way.”
The Cougars (6-6, 3-6 Pac-12) probably will draw a bowl invitation nonetheless, having reached the six-win minimum for consideration the previous week. The Huskies (7-5, 4-5) guaranteed themselves a bid, one that likely will be a bit more prestigious than WSU’s.
The game’s distinctions from recent Apple Cups were minor. The Cougars scored a touchdown on the game’s first possession, ending a sequence of miserable starts against the Huskies. They led briefly in the second quarter. Washington’s offense wasn’t quite as powerfully precise as usual.
But the result essentially was the same: the Washington defense smothering WSU receivers, blitzing rarely but effectively, and waiting for the Cougs to become exasperated enough to start beating themselves.
And they did. Wazzu committed three turnovers, allowed an uncharacteristic five sacks and never uncorked a truly big play. The Cougs’ longest gain was 24 yards.
“We just squandered a bunch of opportunities,” Gordon said. “We fell behind the chains a few times, and they’re too good a defense to fall behind the chains.”
Short passes over the middle — these often were no problem. But Cougar drives eventually broke down. On a day when Gordon became just the 13th quarterback in FBS history to eclipse 5,000 yards in single-season passing, he also failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time this year.
“Defense — great job once again,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “Really playing that bend but don’t break. It’s not about yards. It’s about points.”
Standing in the pocket, sometimes for lengthy periods, Gordon often waved a receiver in a particular direction, looking for separation. He said he could have let the ball fly more freely at times. But the gambles he did take sometimes backfired.
“We did force some of stuff at times,” Leach said. “We needed separation at times. And our tackles had trouble with their ends.”
Gordon was 48-for-62 passing for 308 yards and two picks. He repeatedly had to settle for dump-offs to Borghi, who was typically chopped down shortly after the catch. He finished with 50 rushing yards and 12 receptions for 58 yards.
Early in the second quarter, the Cougs lost their most reliable third-down weapon when Brandon Arconado aggravated an arm injury from the previous week and never returned. In his stead, Renard Ball had nine receptions for 87 yards.
Washington’s Jacob Eason, as other opposing quarterbacks have done, exploited WSU’s error-prone secondary, particularly on a 57-yard pass to Terrell Bynum that set up an early score-tying quarterback sneak. Those two again hooked up for a touchdown in the second as the Huskies took the lead for good.
Eason was 15-for-22 passing for 244 yards and no interceptions, and Salvon Ahmed rushed for 85 yards.
The Cougars drove 81 yards on the game’s first possession for a short Borghi touchdown run, which seemed a good sign for his brash prediction that he would “score — a lot.” But that would prove the Wazzu high point of the day.
Blake Mazza added a 28-yard field goal on the Cougs’ third series to take a 10-7 lead, and he later connected from 38 in the third.
In the interim, the Huskies began imposing their will, sacking Gordon four times in the second to win the field-position battle and scoring two touchdowns to sprint to a 21-10 halftime advantage.
The sacks might have taken a bit of a toll on Gordon, who threw to a cluster of three UW defenders for an odd interception late in the half.
“Miscommunication — I’m to blame for that one for sure,” Gordon said.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Cougars clung to hopes of making it a one-possession game, thanks to a UW fumble caused by Jahad Woods and recovered by Karson Block.
But the Cougs’ Deon McIntosh answered with a lost fumble of his own, on the Washington 10-yard line, and the Cougs’ next series ended with Trent McDuffie’s interception of Gordon.
Peyton Henry’s 22-yard field goal provided the final margin with less then seven minutes left.
Dale Grummert may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2290.