SEATTLE — Just when it felt like it was slipping away again, when the feelings of collapse that suffocated Washington in the Apple Cup a year ago started to resurface in the fourth quarter, the Huskies refused to succumb.
Not in this time. Not with Bishop Sankey running through the Cougars to become the most decorated single-season running back in Washington history and a defense making the plays they lacked a year ago against Washington State.
Sankey blitzed Washington State for 139 of his 200 yards rushing in the second half to become Washington’s all-time single-season rushing leader, and the Huskies made big plays in the fourth quarter to reclaim the Apple Cup with a 27-17 win over the Cougars on Friday afternoon.
Gone now is the cloud hanging over coach Steve Sarkisian about the seven-win plateau the Huskies (8-4, 5-4 Pac-12) have failed to top for the past three seasons. It’s the Huskies first eight-win season since 2001 with a chance at a ninth win in a bowl game.
Most important on this day, the Huskies erased the bad memories of a year ago in Pullman.
“We’re a better team today than we were a year ago, and a year ago we were a better team than the year before that,” Sarkisian said. “Sometimes games go the way they go and you don’t get the call or you don’t get the catch or you make the one bad call as a coach, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a good football team or that you aren’t a better team than you were a year before.”
Last year the Huskies were left stunned by an 18-point fourth quarter collapse against the Cougars, watching Washington State rush the field after winning 31-28 in overtime.
Those feelings started to resurface in the fourth quarter again. After a brilliant 17-point third quarter gave the Huskies to a 20-10 lead, Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday threw a 5-yard TD pass to Dom Williams with 7:30 left to cut the deficit to 20-17. The Cougars defense followed with a stop and Washington State got the ball back with 5:26 left down by three.
Those fleeting feelings were gone almost in an instant. Greg Ducre intercepted Halliday at the Cougars 37 with 5:16 left and seven plays later Keith Price capped the final home game of his career strolling in for a 2-yard TD with 2:08 left.
“I had a lot of fun especially the second half,” Price said. “It’s always fun when you win a game.”
Price’s getting on the field for his final home game was in doubt due to a shoulder injury suffered two weeks ago against UCLA. He looked strong enough in practice this week that Sarkisian felt confident in giving his senior the start.
Price and the Huskies offense slumped in the first half with two turnovers — a Price fumble and interception — leading to 10 Washington State points. But he was solid in the second half, finished 15 of 20 passing and directed a third-quarter scoring blitz largely dependent Sankey.
“The playmakers stepped up – Bishop Sankey and Keith Price – they made a decision going into halftime that they were going to carry the team,” Washington State safety Deone Buchanon said. “I don’t know what happened but they decided to make plays and be players like they are.”
Leaning heavily on Sankey has been at the crux of Washington’s success this season and the Apple Cup was no different. On top of his 21 second-half carries, he added a 40-yard screen pass reception on the Huskies first drive of the second half that set up Austin Seferian-Jenkins 18-yard touchdown reception to tie the game at 10-10.
Sankey bettered Corey Dillon’s record of 1,695 yards set in 1996 and will have a chance in a bowl game to establish a mark that will be difficult to top. He also ran for a 7-yard touchdown in the third quarter to give the Huskies the lead for good at 17-10, a school-record 35th rushing TD of his career.
Sankey finished the regular season with 1,775 yards rushing.
“It’s not about the flash, he’s never going to stand up in front of anybody and boast about himself. It’s going to be about the guys around him and the process and the coaches,” Sarkisian said. “But somebody has to boast about him so I will. He’s an absolute stud. I’m hopeful he gets the recognition he deserves.”
Connor Halliday threw for 272 yards and two touchdowns, but had two interceptions late in the fourth quarter trying to rally the Cougars. The interception by Ducre was the first thrown by Halliday in his previous 152 passes. It was just the third time this season the Cougars failed to throw for at least 300 yards.
Despite the loss, Washington State (6-6, 4-5) has the potential of being bowl bound as well. The 106th version of the rivalry between the two schools marked the first time in the last decade both schools entered the game bowl eligible. It’s still to be seen where the Cougars may end up but after not going to a bowl game since 2003 it’s likely they’ll find their way into the postseason.
“There’s no question we ought to go to a bowl game,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said.