PULLMAN — Ten years ago, while sitting alone in his car, Lorenzo Romar lifted his arms and celebrated.
Little Washington defensive back Nate Robinson had just picked off a Matt Kegel pass in the fourth quarter of the 2002 Apple Cup – one of the zaniest and most controversial installments of the rivalry – during his only season playing football at Washington.
That left his basketball coach celebrating in private while waiting for one of the women in his family to return from shopping.
“It was a great car moment,” Romar said.
And, that’s what today’s game is about. The Apple Cup is at least a memory-maker and at times a life-changer. New moments will be added to the game’s lore during the nationally televised (Ch. 13) 105th meeting between Washington (7-4 overall, 5-3 Pacific-12 Conference) and Washington State (2-9, 0-8) at 12:30 p.m.
The Huskies and Cougars will march onto the field in Martin Stadium with pride as the prime motivator since each team is rapidly moving in opposite directions.
Washington has won four consecutive games behind a revamped defense and an offense that has begun to come around. The Huskies are chasing an 8-4 record which would be their best since 2001. Add a bowl win, and Washington reaches nine wins for the first time since capping the 2000 season with a Rose Bowl victory and an 11-1 record.
Washington State has been dismal. The Cougars have lost eight consecutive games and been badgered by accusations of abusive treatment from departed star wide receiver Marquess Wilson, converting high preseason expectations into bewilderment.
But, the enormous “Go Cougs” shed on Highway 26 – a 400-foot long potato shed made of sheet metal that spells out “GO COUGS” in 27-foot tall red letters – is still standing. Thursday, a hawk seated on a roadside milepost watched a stream of cars go past the green and brown fields that make up so much of the five-hour journey east to Pullman. Washington State said it is a near-sellout for the game. A passion for the game is still present.
Though this year’s vibe around the rivalry feels like a USC football – deflated. The consequences of the outcome – which are few beyond bragging rights – have taken much of the fervor. The day-after Thanksgiving scheduling didn’t help, either.
The 2002 game was the last Apple Cup both teams entered with winning records. This year is just the fourth time since then that one team has had a winning record when the game arrived.
“The records don’t matter,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. “This is Washington versus Washington State. Records haven’t mattered, they won’t next year, the year after and the year after.”
What will matter is how Washington defends the pass. Washington State coach Mike Leach arrived in Pullman renowned for his constant throwing and that approach has made the Cougars the conference’s top passing offense by yardage. But, their path to the top has not been crisp. Leach has used two quarterbacks – Connor Halliday and Jeff Tuel – at varying times because of injuries and ineffectiveness. The Cougars are 11th in the conference in pass efficiency.
Halliday is reported to be injured – the Cougars have a strict policy of not discussing injuries – and Tuel is expected to start. Sarkisian said he doesn’t think the choice of quarterback will be crucial because he expects Washington State to stay with its throw-throw-throw philosophy.
“They call the same plays,” Sarkisian said. “They both have been streaky at times and made some good plays for them. Really doesn’t matter to us, quite honestly.’’
That’s why the health of Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant will be crucial. He injured his left hamstring against Cal on Nov. 6, came out of the following week’s game against Utah early, then missed last week’s game against Colorado. Sarkisian, who also does not discuss injuries with specifics, said Trufant was progressing and will be assessed prior to the game.
The Huskies are built lean and swift, a defensive model anticipated to be effective against a pass-dominated team. It’s a style that has helped Washington to second in the conference in pass-defense efficiency.
Offensively, Washington quarterback Keith Price sums up the current approach with simplicity.
“Feed the hog.”
Said hog is sophomore running back – and Spokane native/former WSU commit – Bishop Sankey, who has 1,156 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. He’s averaging 28 carries per game during the Huskies’ four-game winning streak.
What anticipation exists this season has not been bolstered by either coach. Each has stifled any rhetoric about the other side. In Leach’s case, he also said he didn’t dwell on the rivalry portion of the game with his team.
“Most of it doesn’t need to be stated, because they know,” Leach said.
Which leaves any memories of this year’s Apple Cup to be made only on the field.
WASHINGTON HUSKIES (7-4, 5-3) at WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS (2-9, 0-8)
12:30 p.m. today, Martin Stadium, Pullman; TV: Ch. 13; radio: 950-AM, 102.9-FM (UW); 710-AM, 104.3-FM (WSU)
THE MATCHUPSTHE EDGE
UW’s Keith Price has produced a mediocre year following enormous preseason expectations. He’s been better of late, throwing for five touchdowns against Colorado last week. WSU’s pass-first, and almost only, philosophy has it leading the conference in passing yards. The assumption is Jeff Tuel will start because Connor Halliday is reported to be injured (thought to be a concussion). The Cougars throw it a ton, but are 11th in Pac-12 in pass efficiency.
Like last year, this is not close. Bishop Sankey is putting together one of the better years a Washington running back has had. He has 13 rushing touchdowns, which is 10 more than the entire Washington State team. The Cougars average 30 rushing yards … per game.
Even with the departure of Marquess Wilson, the Cougars still have options at receiver. Gabe Marks is having a solid freshman season with 47 catches for 547 yards. But, Kasen Williams (63 catches, 700 yards) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (58 catches for 753 yards) form a more potent duo than the Cougars can produce without Wilson. OFFENSIVE LINE
Washington’s line has fluctuated, much like its offense, throughout the season. After all the changes because of injury and inability, it appears the Huskies have settled down on the line. They could still be much better, however. It’s tough to grade the Cougars’ line since they throw it so much. Washington State has allowed the most sacks in the conference, while throwing it 119 more times than anyone else in the Pac-12.
Even if defensive end Travis Long doesn’t play, the Cougars have the advantage here. UW has tried all sorts of tricks and mixes on the defensive line this season to produce a pass rush. It’s rarely worked. The Huskies reached such a point of desperation that they often put Seferian-Jenkins on the line on third down. The Cougars are fifth in the conference in sacks, primarily thanks to Long, who is tied for fifth in the conference with 9.5. Even without him – he’s unlikely to play because of a reported knee injury – the Cougars still have a viable pass rush. LINEBACKERS
This has been an excellent group for Washington this season in the 3-4 and hybrid schemes of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. Travis Feeney and Shaq Thompson are two young Washington linebackers who have star potential. Middle linebacker John Timu has improved his tackling to become solid in the center for the Huskies. Redshirt freshman Darryl Monroe is the Cougars’ second-leading tackler. Sophomore Cyrus Coen has made big plays thanks to three sacks and three interceptions. Washington’s group is better as a whole. DEFENSIVE BACKS
Huskies cornerback Desmond Trufant should be a full go after sitting out last week against Colorado because of a strained hamstring. His opposite corner, Marcus Peters, has played well since becoming the starter. Safety Sean Parker is Washington’s best hitter. Washington State’s safety tandem of Casey Locker (cousin of ex-UW QB Jake Locker) and Deone Bucannon is the strength of its defense. Each is a good tackler, big hitter and reckless at times. Bucannon is fourth in the conference in tackles.
Washington has been close to breaking a long return for a touchdown all season. Of course, close is for horseshoes, hand grenades and inane political arguments. The Huskies’ kick coverage has been outstanding. However, their punting has been poor. The Huskies’ Travis Coons is last in the conference at 38.6 yards per punt. Washington State’s Michael Bowlin is a little better at 41.9 yards per punt. Teondray Caldwell is a kick returner with some juice for the Cougars.
It’s supposed to be a clear day, so rule out weather concerns. This is also a game between teams on two distinct trajectories. Washington is on its way up, at the moment, and Washington State is about to wrap up a disastrous first season under Mike Leach.
On paper, this shouldn’t be close. In this paper, we’ll follow that idea.Todd Dybas firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @Todd_Dybas email@example.com