Apple Cup: The battle for worst was good

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

PULLMAN, Wash. -- Wearing flushed faces and unbelieving grins, they leaped over the railing at Martin Stadium and stormed the field, a spontaneous and joyous crimson tide flowing over the turf and meeting in a pulsating mass for a raucous celebration.

"Wooooooo! No. 1 baby!" bellowed a middle aged man as he flung himself into the swirl of humanity.

Victory. So sweet.

It looked and felt like the scene at Texas Tech a few weeks back, when the Red Raiders announced themselves as national title contenders.

Only this was Washington State, and the team trudging off the field with grim and nearly catatonic faces was Washington.

Washington State had triumphed in the 101st Apple Cup, 16-13, in double-overtime, overcoming a 10-0 halftime deficit.

The Cougars and Huskies entered the game with a combined 1-20 record, the lone victory being Washington State's win over Portland State, a mediocre FCS team.

The stakes were simple, thereby earning this train wreck of a game national attention. The loser would be known as the nation's worst BCS conference team.

"That's really disrespectful but there's really nothing you can do about it," Washington State cornerback Romeo Pellum said. "We are one of the worst teams in the nation."

Still, that the Cougars, a touchdown underdog at home to a winless team, hung that dubious distinction over the mantle of their archrival, well, that's the greatest thing in the world.

"It's the best feeling I've had in my life -- ever," Pellum said.

Amid the craziness, the Huskies slouched off the field. Some raced up the tunnel, looking for quick escape. Others walked slowly, seeming to purposefully take in the scene as if they were picking at a wound.

Tears streamed down senior offensive guard Jordan White-Frisbee's face. Limping badly, he required the assistance of tackle Cody Habben and defensive lineman De'Shon Matthews to get off the field. The threesome, arm in arm, wandered into the darkness of the stadium tunnel.

The game was the Huskies to lose. And they found a way to do so for an 11th time this season and 13th time in a row overall.

The short explanation is they couldn't make a field goal. Ryan Perkins missed from 37 yards in the second overtime and from 28 yards in the fourth quarter. Jared Ballman, the long kicker, missed from 40 yards, also in the fourth.

Yet the Cougars, sad sacks who had been shut out three of their past four games and had yielded 58 or more points six times this season, found a previously unknown internal reservoir of clutch to grab the victory.

It was previously unknown because their closest game vs. an FBS foe was decided by 25 points.

"We hadn't been in a close game like that this year and I didn't know how our team and these young guys would respond when something was tight like that," Cougars coach Paul Wulff said. "That's the thing I'm most encouraged about."

Trailing 10-7, with 35 seconds left and no timeouts on the Cougars' 34-yard line, Washington State quarterback Kevin Lopina connected on a 48-yard sideline route to freshman Jared Karstetter on the Huskies 18-yard line.

Huskies cornerback Quinton Richardson got beat, and safety Tripper Johnson was late with help.

The Cougars only had 75 yards passing after three quarters. "It was Kevin's best throw of the day," Wulff said.

Kicker Nico Grasu, after taking an odd stutter step that could have upset his timing, booted a 28-yard field goal to tie the game with no time left on the clock.

Grasu then hit from 19 and 37 yards in overtime, providing the winning margin.

While the Cougars post-game was a frenzy of joy, the Huskies locker room was a morgue. A testy and stone-faced coach Tyrone Willingham, who was forced to resign on Oct. 27 but opted to coach out the season, was peppered with questions about whether he should remain on the sidelines for the Huskies season finale at California on Dec. 6.

He told his inquisitor to "stop asking the question."

On what his responsibility was for the Huskies sorry state, he said, "Obviously, if you're the head coach at this time, you take responsibility for what's going on. But, it should also be noted, that the day I arrived, what the state of the program was."

The Huskies went 1-10 overall and 0-8 in the Pac-10 in 2004, the year before Willingham arrived.

"I'm sorry," said linebacker Donald Butler when asked what he'd say to fans.
"Just sorry, don't give up on us."

The Cougars felt little sympathy after beating their archrivals for the fourth time in five years, something they've never done before.

"I don't care about the Huskies," Pellum said. "I have no sympathy at all. Washington State doesn't like the University of Washington."

The two worst teams in college football combined to put on a great show. It was a gripping showdown with a thrilling ending.

That the result spread joy and misery in such powerful doses across a state speaks to the passion of two programs desperately hoping for a better future.