PULLMAN (AP) — In the midst of his biggest win since returning to coaching, Mike Leach was matter of fact about moving ahead.
“The offseason starts on Monday,” Leach said minutes after getting swarmed, pushed, grabbed and revered by crimson-and-gray-clad fans storming the field.
At least now, thanks to Washington State pulling off the biggest comeback in the 105 meetings with rival Washington, Leach has a benchmark victory to build on as he tries to put behind him a rocky first season on the Palouse.
The belief before the season was Leach would to do exactly what he did at Texas Tech and immediately bring success to Washington State. But the demands of accountability and work ethic from Leach and his staff led to player dissent, and in the case of former star wide receiver Marquess Wilson, claims of abuse by coaches.
In part because of Leach’s past, Wilson’s claims led to investigations by both the Pac-12 and Washington State, the results of which are expected to be released soon. And it became one more distraction in a season already rife with them because of the Cougars’ inconsistent play.
There was the fourth-quarter meltdown against Colorado; the blowout losses to Utah and Arizona State; the near misses against Stanford and UCLA; and finally the upset of Washington. Throw in the unwanted attention from Wilson’s claims and not meeting those outside expectations and it’s been a trying year for both Leach and his players, but one that was capped with an unlikely win thanks to an 18-point fourth quarter rally that added another chapter in Apple Cup lore.
“What I think we need to learn from this is some of this is easier than we’ve been making it,” Leach said. “It’s really just hanging together and everyone doing their part. Not trying to make too much happen. Everybody do their job, make a routine play and stick in there and do it for 60 minutes.”
Washington State was able to pull off the remarkable comeback thanks to gutty plays by quarterback Jeff Tuel and a defense that was underappreciated at times this season because most of the focus was on an offense that failed to live up to its billing. The Cougars sacked Washington quarterback Keith Price twice and forced him into his worst throw of the day on the first play of overtime.
Logan Mayes, the son of former Washington State star running back Rueben Mayes, got the call to fill in for injured starter Travis Long. On the first play of overtime, Mayes ran a stunt and was able to get his hand on Price, pulling him back toward the ground. Price was able to get off a desperation heave, but it fell into the arms of Cougars defensive tackle Kalafitoni Pole, who nearly ended the game returning it for a touchdown.
The turnover set up the Cougars for Andrew Furney’s game-winning 27-yard field goal on their overtime possession that set off a wild celebration.
“I just remember as a kid being so heartbroken when we lost these games,” Mayes said. “Right when we one I thought there is some little kid up there who is going to be happy for the next three days because they won the Apple Cup. … That just felt really good to me.”
The feeling across the state was far different and the collapse left an incomplete taste to the Huskies’ regular season that was supposed to be a launching point for 2013.
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian won’t be able show progression of regular season improvement from year-to-year. The Huskies won seven games for the second straight season and beat a pair of top 10 teams, but two midseason blowouts versus Oregon and Arizona, combined with a loss to their rival to end the season might overshadow it all.
Washington can still reach eight victories with a bowl victory. But it may not resonate the same way and it could come in a lower-tier bowl thanks to the loss to the Cougars.
“We’re lucky we don’t play in seven days and we have a little more time to start the healing process and figure out where we’re going to play our bowl game,” Sarkisian said.
While Washington’s defense progressed under first-year coordinator Justin Wilcox, there remains concern about Price.
“We just couldn’t get in a rhythm and we didn’t execute late in the game like we usually do,” Price said. “We had a few three-and-outs, we had penalties and we didn’t play consistent. That cost us the game.”