SEATTLE – The 104th Apple Cup could have been so much more.
The Washington State Cougars could have been playing for a bowl game, and the Washington Huskies could have been playing for an upper-level bowl and an 8-4 record.
Instead, today’s game at CenturyLink Field will have to be about bragging right and state supremacy. And that’s always been plenty of motivation for Cougars and Huskies. If you can’t get up to play in the Apple Cup, then maybe there is something wrong. They call them rivalry games for a reason.
“That’s college football,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. “I know people say, ‘Oh, it’s just another game.’ And the reality of it, it isn’t. That’s a rivalry game, and that’s the pageantry of football.”
And for the 90-plus players from the state of Washington on both rosters, it holds meaning.
“A lot of guys on our team grew up playing with guys on that team or against guys on that team, or in high school or all-star games,” Sarkisian said. “So I think it carries a little added incentive. And then, obviously, the bragging rights of it all. But that’s what college football is all about. That’s why we do what we do – to enjoy these experiences.”
For Washington (6-5, 4-4 Pacific-12 Conference), the game offers a chance to try to undo what has gone wrong in the past month. It seems like 20 years ago when the Huskies were 5-1. Starting with a 65-21 beatdown by Stanford, Washington has lost four of five games, including three in a row.
The defeats to Stanford, Oregon and USC maybe were tolerable, but last week’s 38-21 loss at Oregon State likely made a season filled with so much promise feel somewhat dissatisfying.
“You can’t press rewind and change the game,” tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins said on Tuesday. “All we can do is get better for this week and get ready for Wazzu and fix the mistakes that we had.”
More important than repairing the mistakes was repairing Keith Price’s swollen left knee. Without the sophomore starting quarterback, the Huskies looked out of sorts against Oregon State. Price practiced all week and showed no signs of knee issues.
“He really looks good – the bounce and spring in his step,” Sarkisian said. “It’s an easy thing to drop back and throw the ball when nobody’s around you; it’s your ability to make the sudden movements. And that was the biggest concern. For the last three days, he’s looked really good moving in the pocket and out of the pocket – much more alive, to me, in his legs.”
The Huskies need a healthy Price and a rejuvenated running game led by Chris Polk, who rushed for 284 yards against WSU a year ago.
Despite the late-season swoon, a win today would still represent continued improvement under Sarkisian, at least by record.
“We’re excited about the fact that as a team that, come Saturday, hopefully around 8 o’clock, we finish our third regular season together with the best record we’ve had in three years together,” he said. “To go from 5-7 to 6-6 and then ultimately 7-5 in year three is an exciting prospect for us, and I know it’s one our guys are really trying to get done.”
For Washington State, the bowl dream died last week about 6 inches from a snow-covered goal line in Pullman against Utah.
But the Cougars (4-7, 3-5) are still playing for their best record under coach Paul Wulff and possibly for Wulff’s job. The program is 9-39 since he took over at his alma mater, and there has been much speculation as to whether athletic director Bill Moos will keep Wulff for the final year of his contract.
But Wulff, as he’s done most of the season, shrugged off the talk about his future.
“I don’t think like that,” Wulff said. “We have a great, young football team. This is a good, young team that is getting better and better all the time.”
And while some Cougars fans don’t see the improvement in the program, Sarkisian does.
“Immense progression, honestly,” Sarkisian said. “I think that it appears that the players, the belief in what Coach Wulff is doing, has grown and grown and grown, whether it’s offensively or defensively. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges as you’re trying to build a program and to consistently get guys to believe in and play confident, and they definitely do that.”
Sarkisian inherited an 0-12 team from Tyrone Willingham.
“You inherit a football team that’s not all your guys, you come with a different style, a different brand, a different approach, but I think Paul has done a nice job of building that,” Sarkisian said. “I’m sure he’d be the first one to tell you he would like there to be more wins to show that, but when you watch the film, it’s evident they’ve gotten better.”
But two of the reasons the Cougars have gotten better won’t be on the field. Quarterbacks Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday will both be on the sideline with injuries, leaving fifth-year senior Marshall Lobbestael as the starter. Lobbestael replaced Tuel when he suffered a broken collarbone. He has appeared in 10 games this season and thrown for 2,240 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“Arguably, the best football they’ve played this year is with Lobbestael at quarterback,” Sarkisian said. “And so, their schemes aren’t going to change; it’s the guy throwing the ball and making it happen. The biggest thing is the experience – this guy has played a lot of football. He has played in this game before and, earlier in the season, he has played really, really well. Just the fact that his comfort level is where it is, and he will go in and play.”
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsportsTHE MATCHUPS
Washington’s Keith Price isn’t 100 percent healthy. But then again, when has he been? Despite the sprains and bruises, he has still put together one of the best seasons in UW history. It will be the final game for WSU’s Marshall Lobbestael. He has played admirably this season when called upon. But fair or not, he’s not as good as Jeff Tuel, Connor Halliday or Price. Edge: Washington.
This is a no contest. Chris Polk will be the best player on the field today. A year ago, he decimated the Cougs for 284 yards on 29 carries. There isn’t a more complete back in the Pacific-12 Conference. WSU has two nice, smaller scatbacks in Rickey Galvin and Carl Winston, but even combined they can’t match Polk’s production. Edge: Washington.
Had Isiah Barton not torn his anterior cruciate ligament last week, the Cougs might have had the edge. They have one of the best receivers in the Pac-12 in Marquess Wilson, who is a 45-yard touchdown waiting to happen. UW has more depth and weapons, with tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins putting them over the top. Expect Kasen Williams to make a big play in this game. Edge: Washington.
Neither team has been particularly great up front. The Huskies have given up the most sacks in the Pac-12 this season with 33; the Cougs have allowed 30. Like most years, the Cougs have dealt with injuries, losing tackle Wade Jacobson for the season. But North Mason grad John Fullington has emerged as a solid player. After being healthy all season, UW lost starting guard Colin Tanigawa. Edge: Even.
The two teams rank near the bottom of the Pac-12 in sacks. UW has just 17 this season and has rotated players trying to find the right mix. The latest player to earn a start is massive defensive tackle Danny Shelton. WSU, which has 16 sacks, has a great defensive end in Travis Long. But he will see plenty of double teams, particularly with other defensive end Adam Coerper out with a knee injury. Edge: Even.
Washington has the leading tackler in the Pac-12 in middle linebacker Cort Dennison, who plays as hard as anyone in college football. But the Huskies have had all kinds of problems with their young outside linebackers. Meanwhile, the Cougs’ trio of Alex Hoffman-Ellis, C.J. Mizell and Chester Su’a along with Sekope Kaufusi, have been making plays all season. Edge: Washington State.
Neither unit has been particularly consistent. Washington is giving up 296 yards passing a game, last in the Pac-12. And it’s not just one facet. Teams throw short and throw deep, and get yards. The Cougs haven’t given up the total yards like UW but have been susceptible to big plays. WSU is starting three sophomores and a junior. Edge: Washington State.
UW has the edge with kicker Erik Folk, although he hasn’t been as consistent this season. UW’s Kevin Smith ranks third in the Pac-12, averaging 26.2 yards per kickoff return. He’s been on the verge of breaking one all season. Barton was WSU’s best kick returner, which hurts. Neither team has been particularly good in punt returns, but don’t be surprised if it comes down to Folk or WSU’s Andrew Furney to decide the game. Edge: Washington.
The weather is expected to be cold, with a chance of rain and wind, not conditions conducive to WSU’s passing attack. Will CenturyLink Field be the difference? WSU did play at CenturyLink this season, but it was one of the Cougs’ worst performances, a 44-21 loss to Oregon State. Edge: Even.
Ryan Divish, staff writer