Updated Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 08:35 PM
PULLMAN — The Washington football team took the next step, all right. The Huskies stepped to the side to avoid crazed Cougars fans who rushed the field after this game.
And then they walked to the locker room, heads down.
If you're looking for forward progress, which is why the Huskies played this season with the "Take the next step" motto, you must now wait to see what happens in their bowl game. And even if the Huskies clobber a to-be-determined foe in a to-be-determined postseason game, this loss irreparably alters the perception of their jagged season.
As the victim of the largest comeback in Apple Cup history, Washington must live with the fact that many will define this season by the Huskies' mediocrity more than their mettle. In a game of penalties and persistence — or persistent penalties — Washington State won in stunning fashion Friday, coming back from a 28-10 deficit in the fourth quarter against the mistake-prone Huskies and claiming a 31-28 overtime victory at Martin Stadium.
The Cougars (3-9), left for dead after an eight-game losing streak, didn't just ruin the Huskies' goal of ending the season with five consecutive victories and an 8-4 record that would have marked definitive progress in coach Steve Sarkisian's fourth season. On this day, the Cougars also proved to be more resilient than a Husky team that often has touted its own resiliency to explain its aesthetically unappealing success.
"I think a lot of guys have counted us out, and our team rose up," Washington State coach Mike Leach said.
The Cougars deserved it. It was a game of follies, but the Cougars did more to win it, outgaining the Huskies 369 yards to 269, converting 8 of 15 third downs and playing what Leach considered their best game of the season.
On the other hand, the Huskies committed a ridiculous 18 of the game's ridiculous 26 penalties. Three of the Huskies' four touchdowns came as a result of short fields following Washington State turnovers. Those turnovers led to touchdown drives of 7, 16 and 20 yards.
The Huskies put together a 13-play, 89-yard scoring drive in the third quarter that ended with Keith Price's 15-yard touchdown pass to Cody Bruns. They managed a 58-yard drive to set up a field goal at the end of regulation, but Ryan Masel bounced a snap to Bruns, disrupting Travis Coons just enough to send a 35-yard attempt wide right. Other than that, the Huskies didn't have a drive longer than 26 yards.
Even when the Huskies were ahead by 18 points, the lead seemed fragile. The offense failed to move the ball, and then the defense succumbed to penalties and poor execution. Throw in some brilliant and daring play from Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel and a wondrous performance from redshirt freshman receiver Dominique Williams (eight catches for 143 yards), and the Cougs pulled off an incredible rally to salvage a season of change and controversy.
"If you've got anything holding you back, just let it go," Tuel said, explaining his team's mentality. "This was our bowl game. We were playing for hardware, even though we (don't) have that great a record."
The Apple Cup is hardware with mystical powers. The Huskies (7-5) have had a decent season, all things considered, and they still have more to play for, but this loss sours the good and embellishes the bad. The Cougars were a disappointment in Leach's first season, but now there's hope as they enter the offseason.
On the Huskies' way to the next step, the Cougs tripped them. Or maybe the Huskies tripped over themselves, and the Cougs simply stepped out of their way, watched them fall and took advantage of the situation. Your interpretation will be different, depending on which color you wear.
One thing is certain: The Huskies stood 15 minutes from an 8-4 record and had an 18-point cushion to get there. And they blew it.
"Yeah, it's frustrating," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "This is going to be painful for us."
Said Price, who lost a fumble and threw a dreadful interception in overtime: "It's devastating. We wanted to get to eight wins. I think our team deserved to get to eight wins. We battled. We survived controversy. It was right there. Ending the season like this is disappointing."
Call the Huskies' season a sidestep. Call it a misstep. But don't call it progress.
Washington State stepped all over that notion.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org
DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Austin Seferian-Jenkins scored to put UW up early, but the game ultimately was a stumbling block for the Huskies.