PULLMAN – If this is still a rivalry, it sure doesn’t feel like one.
That’s what the Washington State University football players who were made available to the media Monday would have you believe, anyway. The Cougars face the University of Idaho for the first time since 2007 at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and that absence hasn’t made WSU’s hearts grow fonder. Or otherwise.
Playing against Idaho, which is less than 10 miles from Martin Stadium, just doesn’t seem to be that big a deal.
“I’ve never played them,” junior quarterback Connor Halliday said. “We’re excited to start a rivalry this week, but other than that it’s just kind of like the battle for the Palouse.”
Kristoff Williams, a fourth-year junior receiver, said the Cougars and Vandals have run 7-on-7 sessions against each other in past offseasons (they didn’t this summer) but that “it’s just like another game, honestly. I didn’t grow up out here, so I don’t know the Moscow-Pullman thing, if it’s a big rivalry or not.”
And here’s WSU coach Mike Leach.
“I don’t pay a lot of attention to that,” he said. “The fans always gauge that a little more than the teams do. It’s our next opponent. We’ve got to get a week better. We’ve got to improve.”
But there was at least some measure of contention between players during the offseason. Former WSU receiver Mansel Simmons and Idaho receiver Roman Runner were among those involved in an altercation outside a party on March 24.
Police alleged that Runner struck Simmons after Simmons charged at him, and the damage caused by that punch – facial fractures and a severe concussion – eventually ended Simmons’ football career. Whitman County Prosecutor Denis Tracy declined to file charges after determining that Runner acted in self-defense.
If the Cougars are still bothered by any part of that altercation, they’re not saying. Runner has caught two passes for eight yards in three games this season.
“We’re just worried about winning the game,” Halliday said. “That’s the only thing on our mind.”
Said defensive tackle Toni Pole: “I mean, Mansel was one of the boys. I couldn’t really tell you. I don’t really know. What we’re focusing on is to beat the mess out of them.”
Leach said, “I didn’t pay attention to it hardly when it happened. I don’t worry about that at all.”
Pole, at least, is looking forward to seeing a couple of former high school foes. He recalled attending camps with and playing against Idaho linebacker Eric Tuipulotu , who played at Serra (Calif.) High School when Pole was at James Logan High, as well as offensive lineman Sione Maile from San Leandro High School.
Pole said Tuipulotu sent him a Snapchat message on Monday morning with a photo of Idaho watching WSU game film, accompanied by a friendly message: “We’re coming after you guys.”
“I was like, ‘Dang, don’t beat me up too bad,’ ” joked Pole, who goes 6-foot-1, 300 pounds.
WSU (2-1) is 70-17-3 all-time against Idaho (0-3).
CURSE IN DISGUISE
Pole’s interception in overtime in last season’s Apple Cup victory will long be remembered as one of WSU’s greatest plays in the history of that rivalry.
But it’s a blessing and a curse for the affable defensive lineman. He said he hears more about how UW receiver Cody Bruns tracked him down short of the goal line than he does about how great the interception was.
Pole said he’s often told he “‘might need to condition harder. Maybe next time you’ll score.’ I’m reminded every day.”
So who did the ribbing?
“The better question is, who didn’t?” Pole cracked.
Halliday was asked about the merits of posting lopsided victories against teams from smaller classifications, as the Cougars did last week to Southern Utah.
The quarterback responded: “You play whoever you play on the schedule. We don’t get to decide that. That’s the big man upstairs. That’s his decision.”
Wait – the big man upstairs? Did he mean God, or athletic director Bill Moos?
“They’re basically the same,” Halliday replied.