As the Washington football team saw its turn-around season morph from 4-1 to 4-7, one of the key missing ingredients was the big play. A big-time kick return, a wide open run play or a long pass down the sideline, all of these elements were missing to a team in need of a pick-me-up.
But with bowl hopes dashed and only state pride and emotions to play for, the Huskies (5-7, 3-6 Pac-10) found what they had been looking for in the Apple Cup against Washington State .
The UW won 35-32 thanks to big plays by a trio of receivers, a tailback and a special teams ace.
"You always want to finish the year with success," said coach Tyrone Willingham. "It gives you momentum going into next year, and the seniors leaving the program can feel like they accomplished something."
What they accomplished was not allowing the Cougars (6-6, 4-5 Pac-10) to take state supremacy for the third straight season — a feat that WSU has never been able to reach. It was a game that started off like a pitchers duel but ended with an offensive explosion.
Through the first quarter, neither squad could get its offense going with any kind of consistency. Washington State kicked off the scoring in the second quarter with a 16 play, 95 yard drive that ended when tailback Dwight Tardy ran for 14 yards and the score.
However, setting a precedent that would be carried out the Huskies for the rest of the game, they visiting team responded and they responded quickly.
On the fourth play of the ensuing drive, quarterback Carl Bonnell dropped back and found junior Cody Ellis right down the middle. Ellis juggled the ball and held on in what may have been the catch of the year for the UW, finding his way into the end zone in the process.
"I couldn't catch it at first," the receiver said. "But it got knocked up and all I could see was green."
It was one of three catches on the day for Ellis, who finished with 72 yards.
A possession later, the Huskies had the ball back and were driving from their own 19 yard line on third-and-11 when Bonnell's pass got away from him and into the hands of WSU's Eric Frampton who took it 43 yards to put the Cougars up 14-7.
Yet again, though, the UW responded quickly, this time on the kickoff. Senior Marlon Wood received the ball and did what he has been trying to do on special teams all season long — he made a big-play. The receiver took the ball 87 yards, putting Washington on the WSU 13 to start its next drive.
Two plays later, Louis Rankin found pay dirt with his first of two touchdowns on the night.
"Marlon has been playing at a very high level for the last few weeks," Willingham said. "That was a huge play, he really stepped up."
That put the game at 14-14 going into halftime.
"We knew that if we played like we knew we are supposed to, no team can stop us," said receiver Sonny Shackelford.
Coming out of the break, the Huskies exploded on another big offensive play as Marcel Reece — who caught a catch for the first time since playing UCLA against the Cougars — took a Bonnell pass 69 yards for the score. The touchdown gave the UW its first and final lead of the game at 21-14.
"I just try to make plays, that's what I'm here for," the junior said. "All I saw was my home crowd and I ran to where I was welcome. It's been a long time coming, and I had confidence in the coaches that they were going to let me make some plays."
Reece had three catches for 107 yards while Bonnell threw for 271 yards and two touchdowns in the game.
"He's beat up and everybody knows it," said UW Offensive Coordinator Tim Lappano about Bonnell. "You gotta give him credit for hanging in there and playing. He's showed some good toughness the last few weeks."
With the score at 21-17, Washington 's special teams stepped up once again. A group that had struggled all season had two plays that led to victory for the UW.
Washington State went back to punt, when linebacker and special teams ace Chris Stevens blew by the defenders and knocked the Cougar ball to the end zone. As he fell on it, he added to the lead.
"Our special teams has been looking for something like this all year," the sophomore said. "It was great to contribute like that. Specials teams is something we had been focusing on and it was great to see everything mesh together."
The Huskies had one more big play in them before the day was done. Struggling to get the ground game started the entire contest and the score getting tight at 28-25, Louis Rankin exploded through the defense.
By the time he was stopped, he was in the end zone 77 yards later.
"Every time [the Cougars] got some momentum and got something going, we were right there to answer it," said senior Scott White.
After falling to the Cougars for three straight seasons, the Huskies finally were able to find the edge in the intra-state match-up. And the seniors, who meant so much to the success early on and had been to hell and back, were able to go out in style, with the Apple Cup in hand.
"This is why you play football, for games like this," Bonnell said.