Washington puts freeze on vaunted Washington State passing game
Led by Danny Shelton on defense and Dwayne Washington on offense, Huskies hammer Cougars in ice-cold Apple Cup.
Seattle Times columnist
PULLMAN – Before the Apple Cup had even begun, the Huskies and Cougars waged a battle to show who was the hardiest team in the state.
The goal, it appeared, was to wear the least amount of clothes in the frigid weather, thus displaying their obliviousness to the cold (and to common sense, but that’s another story).
Many Huskies went shirtless – and one, massive nose tackle Danny Shelton, even shoeless – during their morning walk-through in a hotel parking lot. A dozen or more Cougars were bare-chested during pregame warmups. And a Husky graduate assistant, Gerald Alexander, coached the entirety of the pregame drills sans shirt.
Forget the Husky-Cougar hype. In the 19-degree weather, coldest ever for an Apple Cup, this was more about hypothermia. All that was missing was a dip into the Palouse River, a football version of the Polar Bear plunge.
But once the game began – following what is now d’rigueur midfield woofing (and, uniquely, dancing) between the two teams in a rivalry game – Washington out-toughed Washington State in the only judgment that counted. En route to their 31-13 victory, the Huskies dominated in every aspect except tank-top flaunting.
It was a game won on two fronts – the explosive running of Dwayne Washington, and a ferocious Husky defense that turned Mike Leach’s vaunted Air Raid offense into ground chuck. The only indignity spared Washington State and its fans (a large portion of whom had retreated to warmer locales in the second half) was a postgame turkey feast on the Cougar logo by Cyler Miles and Hau’oli Kikaha, like the Seahawks had in the 49ers’ home stadium.
Which brings to mind the prescient tweet by Husky linebacker Shaq Thompson on Wednesday: “No thanksgiving tomorrow!!! I’ll eat on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.!!”
It was a sumptuous feast by Washington’s defense, which threatened to put up the first shutout of Leach’s head-coaching career, and the first blanking by the Huskies in Pullman since Franklin Roosevelt’s first term.
The Cougars finally hit the scoreboard with 9:55 left in the game. By the time Luke Falk connected for a 35-yard TD pass to Dom Williams, the Huskies had built up a 31-0 lead. Husky coach Chris Petersen said he sensed in warmups (perhaps a misnomer on this night) that his team had the right mindset.
“Today was as good as we’ve had it before the game started,” he said. “I thought going out there, this is going to be interesting because this is one time that I really feel like these guys are truly ready to play.
“I also think they embraced the elements and the cold. They played with great toughness out there. I think the guys that were only bothered by the cold were the coaches. Our guys didn’t flinch at all.”
It was a trying night for Falk, in his third start replacing the injured Connor Halliday, who received the largest cheer during WSU’s Senior Night introductions. The game had been billed as a battle between Washington’s relentless pass rush, ranked second nationally in sacks, and the country’s No. 1 passing offense, which had made a seamless transition from Halliday to Falk.
No contest. The Huskies harassed Falk into ineffectiveness and errors, including a pair of interceptions that led to Washington scores. One play in particular epitomized Washington’s feisty defensive play. Realizing he was out of position, Shelton hastily barrel-rolled to his right just as the ball was snapped. Without missing a beat, the 339-pound Shelton spryly sprang into action, fought through a Cougar block, and threw down Falk for one of four Husky sacks.
Yes, he had his cleats on at this point.
The defensive tone had actually been set earlier in the game. With Washington up 7-0, Falk had Williams open in the end zone for what would have been a tying touchdown – except Williams heard the footsteps of a fast-charging Budda Baker, and dropped the ball as the collision ensued.
Meanwhile, Washington – the player, not the school – continues to be a revelation. He had touchdown runs of 51 and 60 yards – on the Huskies’ second offensive play of each half, respectively – as well as a 29-yard reception on a screen play. Add that to TD runs of 68 and 66 yards in Washington’s past two games, and the Huskies clearly have found their go-to back out of the logjam that existed early in the season.
“There’s no better feeling to see him get to that second level, because there’s not a lot of guys that will catch him,” Petersen said.
Washington State thus finishes a desultory three-win season (same as Leach’s first season), while the Huskies are moving in the proper direction under first-year coach Chris Petersen. The last three games have displayed ever-increasing accomplishment by the Huskies, marred only by the fiasco of an ending against Arizona.
Heading into their bowl game (destination still unknown), they are clearly peaking under Petersen, who won his 100th career game. The defense, always stout up front, is tightening in the back end as a young secondary finds its way. Washington State came into the game averaging 491 yards in the air, but got just 355 in this one, a decrease of 136 under their average, with two interceptions as well.
Let’s also have a word of praise for Cyler Miles, who looked horrible at times in the second quarter – both in execution and decision-making – but recovered to throw a 6-yard touchdown pass on a fade to Kasen Williams just before halftime. It was a vital score that stretched Washington’s lead to 14-0, and set up a steadily effective second half by Miles, who finished with 249 yards and two touchdowns.
“I thought Cyler did a good job,’’ Petersen said. “He’s getting better every game.”
Miles remains a work in progress, maddening at times, with some glaring deficiencies. But he’s shown a growing grasp of the Huskies’ offense and his role in it, and has led an attack that has been difficult for opponents to deal with for three straight weeks.
That’s a thought to warm the Huskies’ hearts – even in the icy environs of Martin Stadium.
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives his take on the local and national sports scene.