'êThree'ê clearly was the significant number Saturday in Pullman, when the Washington State Cougars beat the University of Washington Huskies by three (16-13) after three hours of significant three-point tries, some more successful than others. But the key three of the 101st bobbing in the Apple Cup had more to do with yards that weren'êt gained. Even though the Huskies amassed a respectable 224 yards on the ground, the fact that they didn'êt get a critical three yards very well may have lost them the football game and won coach Tyrone Willingham the blame game.
With a minute left in regulation of a clash that would extend to a pair of overtime periods, Willingham had some managin'ê to do. The Huskies were faced with a fourth-and-three situation at the Coug 36 yard line. Wazzu had no time-outs left. The coach'ês call: Do you punt here or do you hand off to the capable Terrance Dailey (who had 89 yards) or Willie Griffin (112 yards) and try to find the three yards? If the latter, game basically over; if the former, the punt probably reaches the end zone and the ball is placed at the WSU 20-yard line.
Obviously shy Ty opted for the punt, a decision he may have regretted when he got up Sunday morning — if, indeed, the soon-to-be-former mentor ever went to bed Saturday night. Even if the Huskies had failed to pick up the first down, Wazzu would have faced a long field, probably with eight or 10 fewer ticks on the clock than was the case. Instead the Cougs had time to regroup on the sideline and take over on offense with 56 ticks remaining. For those who weren'êt paying attention (it seems there were about three of you), the Cougs then commenced a one-minute drill ending in a game-tying field goal at which point the 10-10 game became a 13-13 first OT score and a 16-13 finale.
Some of us were hoping the overtime periods would extend to curfew so that the Apple Cup could (like the first contest: 5-5 in 1900) end in a tie, as in: 'êWhy do you think they call him 'êTie'ê Willingham?'ê The only problem with that scenario: NCAA rules don'êt abide ties; more to the point, there isn'êt believed to be such a thing as curfew in Pullman.
It could be argued that the game really came down to field goals missed by the Huskies and made by the Cougs. Even though the game is called 'êfoot'êball, savvy (or even just gutty) college coaches don'êt like to pin everything on the inner arches of recently teenaged kickers.
So Willingham blew his chance for at least a measure of redemption. One of his players told a radio reporter after the game that he believed the coach had made the right call with a minute left. While making the dutiful comment, he recalled that the Husky players wanted to run the ball on fourth and three and genuinely believed they would pick up the yardage and run out the clock in regulation.
The 2-10 Cougs have a final outing Saturday, Nov. 29, in Hawaii, sort of like a bowl game at which the winner already has been decided. The Huskies are 0-11 and must now live with it for another two weeks of dispirited practice until it presumably ends at an eminently imperfect 0-12 Dec. 6 against Cal in Berkeley. Maybe Willingham will pay special attention during practices to the art of punting when deep in the opponent'ês territory. In any case, few expect UW to beat the 7-4 Golden Bears. There are those of us, however, who remain optimistic, believing that 'êthree'ê once again will be the key number — as in maybe the Dawgs will only lose by three touchdowns.