SEATTLE — In his view, Mike Leach believes Washington State will be playing in a bowl game in his second season.
The Cougars missed an opportunity to make that belief more of a certainty on Friday thanks to a second half surge by Bishop Sankey and the Washington Huskies.
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 reclaimed the Apple Cup with a 27-17 win over the Cougars on Friday afternoon.
The 106th version of the Apple Cup rivalry marked the first time in the last decade both schools entered the game bowl eligible. And Leach believes his team is one of the most improved in the country over the last month and didn't entertain the thought they wouldn't have another game to play this season.
"I don't speculate on all that stuff. I mean, there's no question we ought to go to a bowl game," Leach said.
Despite reaching bowl eligibility for the first time since 2006, the Cougars (6-6, 4-5 Pac-12) are not guaranteed of a bowl trip this year. A win against the rival Huskies (8-4, 5-4) would have likely cemented their first postseason appearance since the 2003 Holiday Bowl. However, the Cougars couldn't quell a second half surge from Washington, leaving their bowl aspirations still in doubt.
"Every time you play and practice you have an opportunity to improve and that's what I think as a team we've done a really good job of the last three weeks, including this one. I think we need to keep doing that," Leach said. "If every one of our guys ... if we're all one play better, this is a different game."
Washington State's players remain hopeful they have done enough to warrant postseason inclusion.
"That's up to whoever makes the calls on the bowl game," linebacker Darryl Monroe said. "But if we do, you know, we're definitely going to put on a show against whoever we play against."
Trailing 10-3 at the half, Sankey and Keith Price led the Huskies to 17 points in the third quarter to take control of the game. The Cougars had Washington facing a third-and-5 at their own 20 on their opening drive of the half but Sankey broke free on a screen pass for 40 yards to move into Washington State territory.
"If we kept them pinned back there, it was definitely going to increase the pressure on them and certainly the tempo of the second half. Then they converted it and I do think that was a huge play for them," Leach said.
Price connected with Austin Seferian-Jenkins on an 18-yard touchdown pass to cap the drive. Sankey scored from 7 yards out on their next possession and Travis Coons' 39-yard field goal gave the Huskies a 20-10 lead.
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.
"We just knew we had to put the first half behind us and come out on fire in the second half. We know we are a second half team and knew what we could do we just had to go out there a do it," Sankey said.
Sankey finished the regular season with 1,775 yards rushing.
"I feel like a lot of what he accomplished, you know, we gave him. You know, I wouldn't make it more than that," Monroe said.
Connor Halliday threw for 272 yards and two touchdowns, but had two costly interceptions late in the fourth quarter trying to rally the Cougars. It was just the third time this season the Cougars failed to throw for at least 300 yards.
"I know everybody in that locker room is hurting right now just as much as I am," Halliday said. "I don't know if that would have been the case last year or two years ago. The culture has changed and coach Leach knows what he's doing."
Down by 10 in the fourth quarter, the Cougars rallied. Halliday converted fourth-and-15 from the Washington 39 finding Dom Williams for 22 yards with a personal foul penalty tacked on. Halliday and Williams then connected on a 5-yard TD with 7:30 left to cut the deficit to 20-17.
Washington got a 30-yard run from Sankey on its next possession but the drive stalled just inside Cougars territory and the Huskies were forced to punt. Washington State took possession with 5:26 left at its own 13. On the second play of the drive Halliday threw behind Isiah Myers and was intercepted by Greg Ducre at the Cougars 37 with 5:15 left. It was Halliday's first interception in his previous 152 pass attempts.
Price then put the game out of reach with his 2-yard keeper.
"I had a lot of fun especially the second half," Price said. "It's always fun when you win a game."