Asked over and over to explain the unexpected malfunction of his 20th-ranked Washington State University football team Saturday, coach Mike Leach raised his hand.
And he started counting off the offensive miscues, one by one, on his fingers.
“We dropped balls,” Leach led off with.
“We missed open guys,” he added.
“We fumbled,” he continued on.
“We missed blocks,” he concluded.
And the Cougars lost, 45-10, to Washington in the 108th Apple Cup on Saturday afternoon in Husky Stadium.
Many will point to the absence of top quarterback Luke Falk as the starting point to the Cougars’ failures. Falk was knocked out of last week’s game in the second half with an apparent head injury, and missed the annual rivalry game.
Backup Peyton Bender became the first WSU quarterback since Ryan Leaf (1995) to start his first game in the Apple Cup.
Bender said after running with the first-team offense in practice Monday that he had a pretty strong hunch he would start against the Huskies.
“It helped out to know a little bit earlier than to take back-up (repetitions) and find out the day of,” Bender said.
Bender moved the WSU offense past midfield on five of six first-half drives — with four of them getting inside the Huskies’ 30 — but the Cougars only had Erik Powell’s 41-yard field goal to show for it.
The one that hurt was at the end of the first half. Reaching the UW 23-yard line in the final seconds, Bender fumbled after being sacked by Joe Mathis, and the Cougars turned it over.
“That was the most disappointing part of today,” Bender said. “We just have to finish those drives. We just missed opportunities.”
It went from bad to worse in the second half as the Cougars’ offense gave up three defensive scores to the UW — a 69-yard interception return by Sidney Jones in the third quarter, and a 28-yard fumble return by Darren Gardenhire and 27-yard interception return by Azeem Victor in the fourth quarter.
WSU committed seven turnovers, its most since 2009 against Hawaii.
“It was a snowball effect,” Cougars right tackle Cole Madison said. “Once something bad happened, it just kept happening. We should have changed it. We never did.”
Eric Graves, a selection committee member for the Holiday Bowl, was at the game Saturday, even ducking into Leach’s postgame press conference.
The Alamo Bowl has been to multiple WSU games.
The Cougars won’t know where they are headed in the postseason until the first week of December, when bowl matchups are announced.
Leach said he has no idea where his team will end up.
“If you find out, call me.”
Wide receiver John Thompson, a Bethel High School product, also made his first career start in the Apple Cup on Saturday. He is a junior. … The Huskies have now won six of the past seven Apple Cups — and the past four rivalry games in their home stadium by an average of 23 points. … With UW’s Myles Gaskin rushing for 138 yards Saturday, it marks the ninth 100-yard rushing game the Cougars defense has given up over the past 10 games. … Wide receiver Dom Williams did catch a 1-yard touchdown in third quarter, raising his career total to 30 — second-most in school history. … Powell’s 41-yard field goal in the first quarter gives him 18 on the year — fourth-highest in a single season.