A few thousand fans did not stay in Martin Stadium to see it, but Washington State managed to put together a sustained touchdown drive Friday afternoon in the Apple Cup.
The drive didn’t approach any version of smooth — there was a false start, a tripping penalty, a Luke Falk pass was dropped — but given the modest standards the Cougars had set in the first half, advancing the ball 69 yards in 15 plays was a work of art.
Receivers positioned themselves where they were supposed to position themselves. Linemen moved in unison after the snap. The crowd made almost as much noise as the stadium’s sound-effect-for-all-occasions speaker system.
And it mattered little, because Washington’s well-padded lead midway through the third quarter all but assured the Huskies of the surprisingly dominant, 45-17 victory that will deliver them to the Pac-12 championship game this Friday.
“We put them on their heels early,” Huskies junior safety Budda Baker, whose stellar afternoon included two tackles for a loss and an interception, said afterward, “and kept them on their heels.”
As with any blowout, observers might be challenged to ascertain whether the mismatch was a case of Washington playing at a superior level, or Washington State pitching a clunker.
Probably both. The Huskies rolled up 252 offensive yards in the first quarter while jumping ahead, 28-3. It is said that no lead is secure against a team coached by Mike Leach.
Nonsense. With this defense, a 28-3 lead is fail-safe.
Take that extended Cougars possession following halftime. It trimmed the deficit to 35-17, but when they got the ball back after forcing a rare 3-and-out, only 6:43 remained in the third quarter — not an abundance of time for a team trailing by a three-score margin.
Washington, meanwhile, looked every bit the part of potential competitor in the national championship that will follow the traditional bowl contests.
Required to make a goal-line stand at the Huskies 6 after Jamal Morrow’s return of a second-quarter punt, the defense teamed up to stuff four consecutive running plays. A similar situation was posed in the third quarter, when WSU owned a first-and-goal inside the 5-yard line.
But nothing budged on three rushing attempts, and defensive end Connor O’Brien goaded Falk into hurrying his second-down pass.
“There is always the option out there of passing, but I liked the run blocks and thought we could punch it in,” said Falk. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get off the ball and get it in. I have had faith in those guys all year and I still have faith in them. I went with the strength of our team in those scenarios and, unfortunately, we didn’t get it done.”
The UW offense wasn’t perfect either. Its first play of the day was flagged for a false start. Its third play was a dropped Jake Browning pass.
And then the Huskies went into oiled-machine mode. Whatever they tried worked, including a 50-yard trick-play pass from wide receiver Dante Pettis to tight end Darrell Daniels. It put the Huskies inside the Cougars 10 and set the stage for their most impressive performance of the school’s first 11-victory season since 2000.
“We knew Washington State would rally a little bit, and they did,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said. “But our defense kind of swelled up and our offense answered there at the end of the third quarter. The first half went as well as it could for us.”
Afterward, Browning was asked an inevitable question with an equally inevitable answer. Would he prefer to face Colorado or USC for the conference title?
Browning offered the standard-issue reply that he doesn’t worry about scenarios out of his control.
Washington will learn on Saturday what opponent awaits. In the meantime, it will savor an Apple Cup victory decided long before Washington State ever even got started.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath