An ad promoting the telecast of the Apple Cup on Friday hypes the game as a quarterback duel between Washington’s Jake Browning and Washington State’s Luke Falk.
It’s an obvious angle. Sponsors crave viewers, and viewers crave scoring. Browning has thrown 37 touchdown passes this season, a school record. Falk has thrown 36.
Gentlemen, the floor is yours, and so is the sky.
Who’d be silly enough to the question the notion of a bombs away day in Pullman?
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Chris Petersen, for one.
During a teleconference call with Pac-12 reporters this week, the Huskies coach revealed a reluctance to embrace conventional wisdom.
“I don’t know how this is going to go,” said Petersen, addressing a question about a potential Huskies-Cougars shootout. “It always goes different than how I think.”
Petersen’s cred as a football coach is off the charts. If he has no idea how the most anticipated Apple Cup game in decades will go, it gives me pause to make a more specific prediction.
But what the heck, I’ll try:
Washington 20, Washington State 17. Prepare to be surprised when two high-flying offenses end up slogging it out on the ground.
There’s a temptation, and it happens every fall, to foresee the Apple Cup as an air show decided by dynamic quarterbacks. The names are household in these parts — Sixkiller, Thompson, Bledsoe, Brunell, Leaf, Hobert, Gesser, the Huard brothers — and mask the fact the rivalry is steeped in smashmouth powerball.
Take last season, when UW’s 45-10 beatdown best could be explained by a statistical mismatch: The Huskies ran 31 times for 240 yards. The Cougars ran 12 times for 55.
Two years ago in Pullman, Washington rolled to a 31-13 victory that emphasized Washington: Tailback Dwayne Washington, who followed up on his 51-yard touchdown carry with a 60-yard romp to the end zone.
Three years ago, the UW’s Bishop Sankey gained 200 yards on 34 attempts. The Huskies won, 27-17. Sensing a trend?
There’s no secret about any of this. Late November football games in the Pacific Northwest are almost always played amid inclement weather conditions, and inclement weather poses more problems for passers and receivers than it does for running backs.
The Friday forecast for Pullman is relatively benign: A chance of showers, a high of 44 degrees, winds between 10 and 15 mph. In other words, it won’t be balmy. The team more capable of running the ball will be the team that wins, and you’d figure the edge belongs to a Huskies offense more traditionally balanced than Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” attack.
But here’s where it gets interesting: The Cougars have assembled an actual ground game this season with a three-back coalition — Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and James Williams — that is as versatile as any in the country. On the other side of the ball, the newfangled WSU defense leads the conference in fewest rushing yards allowed.
No matter. Myles Gaskin will run, and Lavon Coleman will run, and Jomon Dotson will run. Wide receiver Chico McClatcher will run as well, catching the occasional short lob that qualifies as a pass on the stat sheet but is, in essence, a rushing attempt.
The emphasis Friday will be on the quarterbacks, and with good reason: Two of America’s most accurate collegiate passers on the same field, taking turns as pinpoint-target gunslingers.
But the history of the Apple Cup is rich with the Huskies’ history of ground control. Thinking here of you, Chris Polk (284 yards and two touchdowns at WSU in 2010), and you, Louis Rankin (118 yards and two touchdowns at WSU in 2006), and you, Willie Hurst (155 yards at WSU in 1998) and you, Corey Dillon (155 yards – on 38 carries – at WSU in 1996).
Washington prevailed in each of those games, and I’m thinking they’ll follow the same formula on Friday: Pass for show, and run for daylight.