PULLMAN — For all of Mike Leach’s coaching acumen, in four years he’s never figured out what to do about RB Myles Gaskin. And for five years, he hasn’t figured out what to do about coach Chris Petersen. Even after receiving simultaneous visits from the Palouse football imps — snow, cold, dark and wind, all at once — he still can’t change the Cougars’ fate against the Washington Huskies.
Leach could well be voted coach of the year in the Pac-12 Conference. What we do know for sure is he’s not the coach of the Apple Cup.
With just about everything ahead of the game going in Washington State’s direction — 10-1 record, good health, home field, best quarterback Leach has had at WSU, a top-25 defense to go with the nation’s top passing attack that helped put up 69 points a week earlier — he had no counter for the Huskies.
They are North Division champions after the 28-15 triumph (box) Friday night in the snow globe of Martin Stadium because they do their stuff better under Petersen than the Cougars do their stuff under Leach.
As it seems it shall always be. Forever and ever. Amen.
Yes, it was a tad closer than the four previous Apple Cups (award juice boxes and orange slices here) that were lost by margins of 27, 28, 25 and 18 points. But the relative tautness was largely a function of UW special teams screw-ups, as opposed to the meat of the game.
When what Leach termed “bizarre conditions” descended upon the grounds — others who have witnessed a few more of the previous 110 games between the teams might term it just another Friday in November — he had no alternate gear. No chains to put on the offense. No gravel to throw under the defense.
As a result, a sixth consecutive win in the series happened for Washington, as does a match against Utah Friday in Santa Clara, CA., for the Pac-12 championship and a shot at the Rose Bowl.
“It becomes kinda random, as far as where the ball goes,” Leach said of the conditions. That’s mostly true. But randomness happens in every game, and coaches are paid big coin to have answers prepared.
The Cougars appeared to be catching on to a countermeasure. With 40 seconds left in the first half and trailing 14-0 with the ball at the UW 11-yard line, WSU crossed up the Huskies defense with a straight-ahead give to RB James Williams, who blew into the end zone unharmed. No pass in the flat, no fade to the corner, no shovel pass.
That was the first first-half touchdown against Washington in what seemed like since Drew Bledsoe was in diapers. In the four previous games, Washington had 12 first-half touchdowns, the Cougars one.
That’s about where original thinking ended. WSU managed a season-low 237 yards of offense when they mostly declined to run the ball despite QB Gardner Minshew (26 for 35 for 152 yards, two interceptions and two sacks) struggling with slippery footing. The Cougars’ only scoring drives came from 49 and 23 yards, directly the result of UW miscues.
The Huskies could not have been more delighted to see an absence of craftiness.
“I mean, we know what type of our offense we’re playing,” said UW defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake. “They do the same thing year in and year out. This is five years in a row now, and so it makes it real easy to game plan.
“With the conditions, they can only do one thing. It handcuffs (them) a little bit. So it was definitely to our advantage. And we took advantage of it.”
Were you surprised they couldn’t adjust?
“It does surprise me,” Lake said. “But knowing what I read about the head football coach here, he does things a little different way. So hopefully he remains here a long time. That would be awesome.”
Shots, as they say, fired.
Lake’s back of the hand may have breached Petersen’s protocols about trash talk, but it was hard to argue with the accuracy. The Cougars have won four in a row over Oregon, three in a row over Stanford, and should have had two in a row over USC but for some controversial officiating in the loss to the Trojans at the Coliseum.
Asked whether conditions should have dictated a change in playcalling, Leach said, “It’s tough to, because all of it was somewhat random. It kinda restricted things. It was hard for anybody to go way down field.
“But they did ambush us with an couple of explosives.”
And that was after Petersen said the weather trashed his playbook.
“Half our game plan was out the window by the end of the third quarter, when (snow) just kept coming down,” he said. “It was much different than I think everybody had planned on.”
Yet, the Huskies managed on their first possession of the half — after plows cleared the field — to connect on a 59-yard pass between QB Jake Browning and WR Hunter Bryant, followed by a double pass from Browning to WR Aaron Fuller to Bryant for a 22-yard touchdown and a 20-7 lead.
The breathing room allowed the Huskies to snuggle back into a ground game, which eventually produced an 80-yard blast from Gaskin with 12:30 remaining. It was his third touchdown of the game, following four in the Apple Cup a year ago with 192 yards rushing.
The result was the Huskies needed only 12 completions to get 229 yards passing, while the Cougars needed 26 to get 152. And as always with Gaskin, he provided a solution for all conditions and terrain — 170 yards in 27 carries. That gave him 550 yards for his four Apple Cups.
Leach did own up with a standard response to a defeat, this one leaving the Cougars with a 10-2 record that somehow seems disappointing.
“I do think they blocked better than we did and tackled better than we did,” he said. “They won.”
The Huskies indeed won. It was the one thing that wasn’t random.