SEATTLE — For the Washington Huskies, this year’s Apple Cup stakes are almost the same as in 2012.
They enter with a 7-4 record, needing a win to assure their first eight-win season since 2001, when they finished 8-4 after losing in the Holiday Bowl.
They are 16.5-point favorites, close to last year’s 13.5-point line when they played Washington State — and lost, 31-28 in overtime.
So, yes, the stakes are largely the same this season. But the Cougars, in coach Mike Leach’s second season, are better, and Friday’s 12:30 p.m. game at Husky Stadium could decide the Pac-12 Conference North’s third-place team.
“It’s Year 2, I think, for everybody there,” UW coach Steve Sarkisian said. “The offensive linemen, the running backs, the receivers, and obviously Connor (Halliday), his second year in the system as well. So I think with anything comes repetition, being able to fix some of the problems that might occur. I think in general, they’re performing better than they did a year ago. And I just think more so than anything, that’s a product of Year 2 for everybody involved.”
WSU (6-5, 4-4) won its past two games to achieve bowl eligibility for the first time since 2006, the culmination of across-the-board improvement that was evident from the season’s start.
Halliday, WSU’s starting quarterback, embodies that improvement. He struggled so mightily last season that he was benched, flipping and flopping with senior Jeff Tuel as the starter.
Interceptions and poor decisions plagued Halliday, and those problems weren’t entirely solved when the season began — he threw eight interceptions in the first four games and has 19 this season in a nation-leading, Pac-12-record 597 attempts.
But he also ranks third in the country in passing yards — total and per game — and has thrown only two picks in WSU’s past three games.
In other words, when he’s on, he’s on. And he was last week against Utah, throwing for 488 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
The redshirt junior from Spokane has never played in an Apple Cup and joked after the Utah game that he’s “kind of excited to lose my virginity.”
“He just continues to get better and better and better,” Sarkisian said. “It’s one thing to work within the system.
“It’s another to be able to improvise and understand the system, to go kind of just outside of the system to make your plays, and I think he’s doing a good job of that.”
He’s had help. Halliday distributes the ball evenly to WSU’s deep crop of receivers, eight of whom have caught 30 or more passes this season. Gabe Marks, a sophomore, leads the bunch with 65 catches for 724 yards.
“WSU has an excellent offense,” said UW cornerback Marcus Peters, who was flagged twice for pass interference in last year’s Apple Cup. “They throw the ball 50-plus a game, and that’s what they are going to do. We just need to stop the pass.”
And their receivers?
“They are big, and they are going to make their plays when they get the ball in their hands,” Peters said. “That’s it.”
Leach doesn’t see much difference between this year’s Huskies and last year’s Huskies.
“I think they’re similar,” Leach said. “I thought they were really good a year ago. I think they’re a good team this year.”
Good enough to beat the Cougars this time, they hope.christian.caple@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @ChristianCaple