Perspective can be a hard thing to come by, especially in the wake of a loss as disheartening as the one Washington State suffered Saturday night in the 110th Apple Cup.
The Cougars squandered a number of opportunities by losing to Evergreen State rival Washington 41-14 at Husky Stadium, but none of them were harder to swallow than a chance to represent the Pac-12 North in Friday’s conference title game against USC.
That’s an opportunity the Cougars had last season, when they reeled off seven consecutive conference wins to set up a winner-take-all Apple Cup with the Huskies. They lost 45-17 at Martin Stadium, so Saturday’s game on the other side of the state was supposed to be a mulligan for the Cougars. By halftime, or possibly even before, it was a mulligan wasted. The Huskies led from the start and kept the Cougars off the scoreboard until the fourth quarter.
WSU’s fifth-year seniors will leave campus without a Pac-12 title – let alone an opportunity to play for it – and a group of players that includes Luke Falk, Jamal Morrow, Erik Powell, Cole Madison and Peyton Pelluer will walk out with all sorts of accolades and accomplishments, but not a single win against the Huskies.
Saturday’s defeat was as heartbreaking, gut-wrenching and agonizing a game as the Cougars have had under Mike Leach. But the fifth-year coach, in his postgame interview, was quick to remind that the Cougars have one more chance to make sure it isn’t the lasting image of this senior class.
Later this month, WSU (9-3, 6-3) will travel to a warm-weather destination for its bowl game and Leach, for the next three-plus weeks, will urge his group that it isn’t an opportunity the Cougars should take lightly.
“I don’t even understand the people that can’t even be motivated for a bowl game,” he said. “I mean you start with a whole bunch of people are trying to get to bowls. Most people don’t get to go to bowls. Some people don’t get to go to bowls years in a row. How are you not motivated for a bowl?”
It won’t be the bowl the Cougars had their eyes on, and it won’t follow a trip to the Pac-12 championship, but there’s a good chance it'll be the highest-profile postseason game WSU has played in under Leach, who took the Cougars to three bowls in his first four seasons.
“If they had NIT games for teams that didn’t make bowls, I don’t know how you can’t get excited for that,” Leach said.
The group of teams eligible for bowls isn’t as exclusive as it once was – 80 of the 129 FBS programs will qualify in 2017 – but the Cougars will be playing in one of the more prestigious Pac-12 bowls and will have a chance to win 10 games for the first time under Leach. Including those that have already reached the barrier, 10 wins is in play for only 30 teams this season. That’s a much more exclusive club and one the Cougars haven’t been part of since 2003.
WSU will know its bowl destination, and opponent, by next Sunday. Based on the pecking order of bowl games affiliated with the Pac-12, the Cougars, who have the fourth-best record in the conference, would be headed to the Dec. 27 Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara.
Maybe the Holiday Bowl would swing down to take the Cougars and it’s possible that the Sun Bowl could trade up to bring Leach’s squad back to El Paso, though bowl games often stay clear of repeat appearances and WSU made cameos in both games the last two years. It would be their debut in the Foster Farms Bowl.
Still, none of those are bowls the Cougars were necessarily salivating to play in when fall camp started – if they had it their way, it would’ve been the Alamo or Fiesta, after a Pac-12 title game appearance – but now they'll have to play the cards they’ve been dealt.
And to do that, they'll first have to find some perspective.
“We’ve just got to realize that we’ve got one more guaranteed game as a senior class,” Falk said. “Just string it together one more time and really just enjoy it. You never know if this is going to be some guy’s last game, so we’ve just got to go out there and enjoying playing football. Enjoy the process and go out there and give everything we’ve got.”