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November 23, 2005

Blogchair QB : Quick ‘Liz’ deflates the Dawgs

As every dawg has its day, even slightly mangy cats would have to have one eventually. The first inkling that it might be the Cougars' day was when a first-quarter Alex Brink pass somehow made it through the hands of a leaping C.J. Wallace and into the paws of Chris Jordan. The WSU receiver not only cradled the rebound, but kept his feet in bounds for his only reception of the game. The flick of fate rekindled grainy images of the 1977 Apple Cup, when a Warren Moon prayer appeared to be intercepted, yet inexplicably bounced into the clutches of Spider Gaines for the game-winner, sending the Huskies to their first Rose Bowl in 14 years.

This Apple Cup brought no mention of a Rose Bowl-more like a Low Bowl to avoid the conference cellar-but it supplied an ending as dramatic as '77 and the last three clashes. The east-west rivals exchanged third-quarter touchdowns following fumbled punt returns by WSU's Trandon Harvey and Washington's Sonny Shackelford, the only turnovers of the game. Shackelford's improbable catch between three Cougar defenders on a 65-yard pass from tailback Kenny James tied the score, 7-7, in the first quarter. Harvey's heroics came in the final 90 seconds.

Even though Jerome Harrison rushed for 122 yards in the first half-his eighth game over 100 yards by intermission this season-the Huskies only trailed by six points. The Cougars jammed the line and blitzed frequently, holding James Sims to six yards rushing in the half, closing Isaiah Stanback's escape routes and limiting him to 46 yards passing. But the Dawgs picked up momentum with an 80-yard drive late in the third quarter. Sims bolted 19 yards to the WSU 36, and then 15 yards to the Cougars' 5. A three-yard touchdown run by the sturdy senior on the second play of the fourth quarter, capped by an Anthony Russo catch on the conversion, gave the Huskies a 22-19 lead.

When Loren Langley, who had missed two long FG attempts earlier, badly hooked a 27-yard chippy with 11:32 remaining, the roar of Husky Stadium brought a familiar sensation. No, not the kind that comes from too much halftime coffee, but the type felt in the upsets of 2002-03, when the underdog Huskies were outgained but snatched a victory in the final minutes or overtime. The third-most prolific offense in WSU history, on its way to a 507-yard afternoon, was starring into the headlights of its eighth consecutive Pac-10 loss.

And then came a collision that proved costly for the Huskies. Sims, running off the left side, was hit high by LB Will Derting and SS Eric Frampton, with CB Alex Teems delivering a helmet shot to his left knee. When Sims hobbled off with 10:37 left, any semblance of a running game went with him, reminiscent of the loss at Arizona State. On their next possession, seldom-used senior Chris Singleton was stopped for six yards on three carries. Moving the chains only once, Stanback's pass on third down was swatted away after LB Scott Davis got away with hooking Craig Chambers.

From the Brink of disaster to the Brink of success

When Washington State took over at their own 20 with 5:31 remaining, the bend-don't-break UW defense had limited Harrison (relatively speaking) to less than 75 second-half yards. Harrison finished with 36 carries for 207 yards, the most by a Cougar in the Apple Cup, but the game-winning drive pivoted on the play of two lesser-known Cougars. Brink, who had been held to 22 yards passing in the third quarter and whose bobbled snap had killed the Cougs' previous possession, twice found backup TE Cody Boyd for crucial yardage on third down. Filling in for the injured Troy Bienemann, Boyd tied a career high with five catches for 65 yards.

With the clock running under two minutes after he was forced to scramble back to the Husky 39, Brink showed poise beyond his years. The sophomore rushed the team to the line for a "Liz 15," a spread formation with a bubble screen to slotback Harvey. The quick snap and bullet pass caught the Huskies flat-footed. Cornerback Matt Fountaine, who had been flagged for defensive holding at drive's outset, was slow to react towards the sideline and a block by WR Greg Prator took out Josh Okoebor. When FS Dashon Goldson tried to cut underneath the block, Harvey was able to burst up the sideline untouched for the dagger.

"All I know was it was a quick throw to the left, and I looked at Greg and said, 'Greg, throw that block for me and I'm going to try to score," said the redeemed Harvey. "The Huskies, they weren't set, Brink was trying to hurry it up. I just caught the ball and kept running. The only reason I stopped was because I was about to run into the band."

The mercurial senior didn't crush a trombone player like in "The Play" of Cal-Stanford infamy, but he did he did crush the Huskies' hopes of a season-ending winning streak. The cruel irony laid in the fact the UW defensive backs, after the Cougs' first possession, had done a solid job shutting down the Wazzu receivers. Jason Hill, who finished fifth in single-season receptions at WSU (62) despite missing time to a thigh bruise, was held to 49 yards, 67 below his average.

"We played well at times," said Evan Benjamin, who led the Huskies with 14 tackles in his final game. "But I don't think that we came up with the big plays that we need to create a stop."

Part of the credit has to go to Brink who eluded pressure and delivered accurate throws in the clutch. The surprise starter this year over Josh Swogger, Brink rewarded coach Bill Doba's mid-season faith after interception-plagued games at Oregon State and Cal to become the first WSU quarterback to win back-to-back games against the Huskies. Brink's 24 touchdown passes ranks fourth in WSU season records, and his 2,891 yards passing is the most by a sophomore, surpassing the numbers of Ryan Leaf, Jack Thompson, and Drew Bledsoe.

"It doesn't matter if you have a 1-10 season," Derting said following his first significant action in over a month and his swan song as a Cougar. "Beating the Huskies is everything."

The first WSU winning streak in 22 years

The consecutive wins are the Cougars' first since knocking the Huskies out of the Rose Bowl in 1982-83. But if any of your Cougar friends heckle you too much, you can silence them with a reminder that in the 98-game history of the series Wazzu's longest winning streak is only TWO games, and Saturday's victory is only their second in Seattle since 1987. Washington has won 63 times, with six ties. For those of you Cougs with poor math skills, that means the Palousers have won just 29 times.

The Huskies weren't able to consistently exploit the Cougars' tactic of overplaying the run. Stanback's passing numbers improved in the third quarter (6-of-8 for 96 yards and a TD), but receivers were overthrown with regularity. Isaiah seems to have a problem getting the nose of the ball to drop, less like a well-arced pass and more like a rocket aimed over the head of Joe Wolfinger, the basketball squad's 7-footer.

"They tried very hard to take [the run] away," said Tyrone Willingham. "When we had opportunities, I am willing to bet we had three, maybe four opportunities where we had receivers down the field and we didn't get the ball to them. If they are crowding the line of scrimmage like that, then we have to make them pay another way.

He has to really take the experience of these games and really put it to good use," Willingham said of Stanback. "Because, hopefully the mistakes he was making this year, he won't be making next year, because of his experience. Learn our system better, learn the game of football better, become more of a leader in our system, and then start the physical act of the execution."

The loss, the Huskies' third of the season in the final 1:30, was not only a missed opportunity to create some positive inertia towards next season, but also the last stand for seniors like Benjamin and Manase Hopoi[d/b] on defense; fullbacks [db]Mark Palaita and Ty Eriks, and six offensive lineman from the two-deeps; not to mention special teams players like J.R. Wolfork, who recovered Harvey's fumble for the punt team.

"A tremendous letdown," Willingham said empathetically. "This is their last one and they wanted to get the Apple Cup."

The post-game scuffle at midfield seemed to have been precipitated by an unfortunate trend in recent years: "winning" respect by disrespecting others. I was glad to hear Willingham speak of proper sportsmanship, respecting the game and others, and thereby, yourself. But the Huskies' disdain for the WSU celebration proved once and for all that they didn't stop fighting this season.

I'll have a review of the Huskies' season in next week's Blogchair Quarterback, including a look at the senior departures with an eye towards next year. Until then, Happy Turkey or Tofurkey Day to all of you in the Husky Nation.


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