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Cougar Apple Turns Mushy

With a chance to clinch at least Rose Bowl, Washington State loses in third overtime, 29-26, to Washington.

November 24, 2002|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

PULLMAN, Wash. — Now we know what it takes to cause the unthinkable, to make USC fans root for UCLA.

It takes a bizarre game hundreds of miles to the north. It takes three overtimes and an officiating crew that huddles at midfield to suddenly, unexpectedly, end the whole mess.

It takes third-ranked Washington State losing to Washington, 29-26, on a controversial and utterly inexplicable Saturday night in the frosty Palouse in eastern Washington.

With the Apple Cup loss, Washington State fumbled away a chance to clinch the Pacific 10 championship and now must defeat UCLA on Dec. 7. If the Bruins win, the Trojans go to the Rose Bowl instead.

"People knew how important this game was," Washington State offensive lineman Calvin Armstrong said. "I think a lot of us were nervous."

As their fans rained soda bottles onto the field in protest, the Cougars limped away with more than wounded pride. Quarterback Jason Gesser, knocked out of the game by an awkward sack in the fourth quarter, was taken to the hospital for X-rays of an injury that turned out to be a high ankle sprain.

He will be on crutches for an undetermined period of time.

"I'm hoping it's not going to be serious," Washington State Coach Mike Price said. "We will see."

The normally cheerful Price looked like a man who had caught glimpse of a ghost. When asked about the oddness of this game, he began with the end.

His team was trailing by three points in the third overtime when his backup quarterback, Matt Kegel, attempted a short throw toward the sideline. Washington defensive lineman Kai Ellis tipped the pass to himself but had it knocked out of his hands before he could complete the interception.

Even as Ellis fell on the loose ball, an official was signaling incomplete pass. Washington State players clapped and headed back to the huddle, thinking they had lived to play another down.

Not so quick.

The officiating crew gathered to debate what had happened. Players pressed in from all sides. The crowd of 37,600 at Martin Stadium -- having braved pregame hail and chilling winds -- grew restless.

Then came the call: It was a "backward pass" and therefore a live ball. Possession was granted to Washington. Game over.

"An unforgivable mistake," Price said of the decision. "It's ugly, as far as I'm concerned, to see it end that way."

Perhaps ugly was the only way this game could have ended after lumbering through most of the evening in a cavalcade of errors. Each team blew chances to make big plays. By late in the fourth quarter, they had combined for four turnovers, two botched punts and four missed field goals.

Given this ineptness, Washington State held a seemingly comfortable 20-10 lead. But the momentum swung when Gesser, scrambling to his right, was caught from behind by a rusher.

"He was able to get hold of my jersey and drag me back over my ankle and it popped," the senior quarterback said. "If I could have played, you would have seen me out there. The doctor wouldn't let me play."

Washington rallied. Quarterback Cody Pickett, on a roll the past few weeks, regained his touch in time to complete a seven-yard touchdown pass to Paul Arnold with 3:13 remaining. When Kegel threw an interception moments later, the Huskies drove downfield and tied the score on John Anderson's 27-yard field goal with 15 seconds left.

"We shot ourselves in the foot a lot of times, but I know Washington State will say the same thing," Washington Coach Rick Neuheisel said. "It was just a hard-fought game."

Once overtime began, Husky kicker Anderson overcame the jitters that caused him to miss a string of attempts earlier. The senior was suddenly as solid as a rock, making kicks of 34, 46 and 49 yards to give his team a 29-26 lead and set up the improbable last play.

"I told him early in the game, 'You're going to have your chance and you've got to come back,' " Neuheisel said. "God bless him he did."

That quickly, Washington State (9-2, 6-1) saw the end of any hope for sneaking into the bowl championship series title game against Ohio State.

Meanwhile, Washington (7-5, 4-4) clinched a bowl bid and extended its winning streak in this state rivalry to five consecutive seasons.

"It was a crazy game," Pickett said. "The craziest I've ever played in."

Just crazy enough to make USC root for UCLA.

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