WSU football player celebrates the end of their team's 16-game losing streak in PAC-10 Conference play. Credit: Washington State University
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Dumbfounding as the Apple Cup outcome was Friday, the parallels to the game 30 years earlier at Martin Stadium in Pullman were equally jawdropping: Heavily-favored Huskies sleepwalk through a second half rally by the lowly Cougars, who take advantage of a late-game miss on a field goal to pull the upset of the conference season.
But that isn't nearly the most palm-to-forehead part:
As thousands of Washington State fans swarmed the post-game field, a presumably drunken Cougar punched out a premiere Husky offensive player, who was knocked upon his helmet-free head. The assailant fled anonymously into the melee.
Friday, it was tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Thirty years earlier, it was quarterback Tim Cowan.
Who said tradition is vanishing from college sports?
"He squared up on me, hit me with a right and knocked me down," Cowan said. "Hit and run, and he was gone."
Just like Seferian-Jenkins, clobbered by a fan who kept running, sharing the trait of sucker-punching cowardice that is now a Cougars hallmark.
Cowan, already woozy from a late-game sack and fumble that set up WSU's final score — a field goal securing the 24-20 victory that restored the rivalry after eight Washington wins in a row — was being escorted off the field by tackle Ray Cattage and kicker Chuck Nelson when it happened.
As the two picked up their bewildered but otherwise OK comrade, Cowan will never forget the remark of the dry-witted Nelson, who five minutes earlier missed wide right, from Cowan's hold, his first field goal after a then-record 30 successful makes.
"Tim," he said, "now might be good time to put your helmet on."
Cowan laughs now at the re-tell, but it wasn't until a gathering at the WAC's 101 Club just a few years ago that he had occasion to tell the story that will now be added to the legacy of football and civic mayhem that attends the annual smackdown.
"I don’t know that I even thought about it after the game or brought it up later," Cowan said. "When I told the story, everyone said they had never heard it."
Now they will know it, because of history's habit of repeating. Neither Washington nor Washington State is saying much about the episode with Seferian-Jenkins, who, like Cowan, never said anything about it in the post-game interviews.
These days, video is everywhere, including the grainy record of the field chaos, first posted by cougcenter.com on Saturday. But it's probably not sufficient evidence to identify the attacker. By now, it's likely the wuss who knocked down the 6-foot-7, 270-pounder has giggled it to his friends. Though disclosure would require some guts, probably hard to find in that crowd.
Cowan, director of business development for Lovsted-Worthington, a financial services firm in Seattle, recalled that the whole week leading to the game was odd. The 9-1 Huskies, who spent seven weeks atop the Associated Press poll before a loss to Stanford and John Elway, were 24½-point favorites, having beaten a good Arizona State team on the road and UCLA at home.
But the Wednesday practice was so bad that coach Don James climbed down out of his coaching tower and screamed at his assistant coaches, "Get these players off my damn field!" Stunned, the coaches finally moved the players to the locker room after James shouted the order again.
Cowan couldn't believe practice would end that way, but it did. The vibe was off.
"On Friday, I remember saying to somebody that this isn't the correct environment," he said. "We were way too relaxed."
The came Saturday, the first Apple Cup in Martin Stadium after 28 years in Spokane.
"One of our guys came screaming into the pre-game locker room — he had been hit in the head with a bag of dog poop," Cowan said. "I told myself I had to keep from laughing."
The Huskies were up 17-7 at halftime, but WSU quarterback Clete Casper led a second half rally with two touchdown drives that put the Cougs up 21-20 before Nelson missed his fateful kick with a little more than four minutes remaining. After Cowan threw an interception with 56 seconds left, a big chunk of the sellout crowd massed on the lower bleachers, then swarmed the field. Within an hour, the goalposts were in the bottom of the Palouse River, and the Huskies' hopes for a repeat appearance in the Rose Bowl were equally submerged.
The victory was the Cougars' first of three in the next four Apple Cups, a run that helped the Cougars gain parity with Washington — over a 13-year period starting in 1982, the Huskies led the series 7-6.
The Cougars' win Friday certainly did much to restore credibility to a flagging program. In the first year of Mike Leach's tenure, the Cougs were 2-9 and winless in the Pac-12. Blowing a 28-10 lead to a team missing several of its top players was a a huge kick in the shorts to Washington under Steve Sarkisian.
"Big win for him; big loss for us," said Cowan, who follows Washington closely. "Our program was not in position to lose a game like that. Sark said this was a year to take the next step. I didn't see it happen. Usually, teams form an identity over the course of the season. From the outside looking in, I don't see where they found that identity. I thought we'd be further along under his leadership."
The Huskies will have a bowl game in which to get a little redemption — the odds favor an appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl Dec. 22 against the Mountain West Conference winner, probably Boise State — but it can't make up for allowing the rival to salvage a season at Washington's expense.
The lesson of history did not linger for the Huskies: Whenever you wear purple in Pullman keep your head on a swivel — and in a helmet.