John McGrath

John McGrath: Apple Cup promises to be a thriller — unlike last year

Washington coach Chris Petersen hefts the Apple Cup trophy as Washingotn Gov. Jay Inslee, left, applauds after presenting it to him after Washington defeated Washington State 45-10 in an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 27, 2015, in Seattle.
Washington coach Chris Petersen hefts the Apple Cup trophy as Washingotn Gov. Jay Inslee, left, applauds after presenting it to him after Washington defeated Washington State 45-10 in an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 27, 2015, in Seattle. AP

Upon taking my seat in the Martin Stadium press box on Friday, I will not have a rooting interest in either Washington or Washington State.

Rooting for any team in a game I’m covering is an occupational hazard, because my brain isn’t sophisticated enough to simultaneously process emotion and observation.

But that’s not to say I won’t be rooting for a few things.

1. That a screen appears when I turn on my laptop. A screen appears 999 out of every 1,000 times I do this, but there’s always a nanosecond of dread reconnecting me with the concept of prayer.

2. That the coffee is hot.

3. That I don’t spill the coffee on my laptop keyboard. Last time this happened, my virtually complete story died in the manner of the Wicked Witch.

“You cursed brat,” the screen screamed at me, “look what you’ve done! I’m melting!”

4. That I get the final score right, and file a story that doesn’t confuse current Huskies quarterback Jake Browning with former Huskies quarterback Jake Locker.

5. That it’s an entertaining game packed with a suspenseful plot line.

I have covered 24 Apple Cup contests, the best of which was, uh, allow me a few hours and I’ll get back to you. The list is quite long.

The least entertaining Apple Cup? Last season’s no-doubt, 45-10 Huskies victory comes to mind.

It was doomed during warm-ups, once it became obvious Cougars quarterback Luke Falk would be sidelined with post-concussion issues. Peyton Bender replaced Falk, and while he didn’t seem overwhelmed by the national-TV spotlight, the assignment was asking a lot of a redshirt freshman making his first career start.

Trailing 17-3 midway through the third quarter, WSU was clicking on a sustained possession that found them with a first-down snap at the Huskies’ 31-yard line. Then Bender delivered a pass into the hands of UW cornerback Sidney Jones, whose pick-six trip to the end zone was impeded only by the guy who threw it.

Jones juked, Bender fell, and what had been a marginally interesting game devolved into a blowout. Bender ended up attempting 58 passes, the Huskies defense ended up securing seven turnovers and scoring three touchdowns — and feel free to connect those dots.

A disappointing game can be described this way: When the remarks of the coach whose team was beaten are the indelible memory.

“For whatever reason, our guys played wide-eyed,” lamented Mike Leach. “We’ve clearly beaten teams that are considerably better than Washington this year.”

In retrospect, Leach’s parting words at Husky Stadium provided some spice to an otherwise bland Apple Cup. But at the time, and for several days afterward, Leach was identified by UW fans as Public Enemy No. 1.

Call Leach what you will — he revels in controversy, pretty much lives for it — but his insistence WSU didn’t bring its A-game to Seattle cannot be argued. The Cougars were 8-3 and guaranteed a bowl. The Huskies were 5-6, hoping to salvage a disappointing season with the .500 record required for a fringe bowl.

Falk’s absence turned out to be the difference between a compelling Apple Cup and a yawner. Bender gave it a go, but there’s a reason he followed up on his first WSU start by transferring to a junior college in Mississippi. When a once-acclaimed high school quarterback is listed behind Luke Falk on a depth chart, it leads to the temptation to seek opportunities elsewhere.

So here we are, a year later. Falk is healthy, as is his counterpart, Jake (taking it slow here) Browning. With a 10-1 record, the Huskies are clinging to aspirations of a national championship. With an 8-3 record, the Cougars are capable of obliterating those aspirations.

The forecast in Pullman is calling for three and a half hours of raucous fun. A close game will make the day perfect, as long as the laptop works and the coffee is hot, and I keep the two apart.

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