Cougars look for upset against Huskies in Apple Cup

Perhaps Rome can be built in a day. And torn down just as quickly.

At least that’s the case for the two in-state football rivals who will take the field today with a season’s worth of momentum on the line.

While a University of Washington win over Washington State probably reaffirms what we all already know, an upset this afternoon could change the entire scope of the 2012 season.

Mike Leach has 60 minutes of football to salvage his first season as head coach at WSU, and much of the struggles and off-field turmoil could be forgotten if his Cougars (2-9 overall, 0-8 in the Pacific-12 Conference) can scratch out a win in Pullman this afternoon. Beating the hated Huskies (7-4, 5-3) and gaining some semblance of motivation heading into the offseason could be the only thing that saves Leach from what has otherwise been considered a lost season.

Likewise, UW could see all the unbridled enthusiasm of a four-game winning streak go up in smoke with a loss to the struggling rival from the other side of the state.

Maybe it’s an overstatement to call today’s installment of the Apple Cup rivalry a huge game, but an unforeseen WSU upset could turn it into just that.

“This is a good way to end up,” Leach said, “and everybody’s excited about it.”

Leach, who has spent every Christmas of his 11-year career as a head coach in a hotel room or on the practice field, knows for certain he’ll be home for the holidays this time around. Rather than bringing the Cougars to the postseason for the first time in nine years, as many expected when he took over a 4-8 team from the fired Paul Wulff, Leach has found new depths in WSU football.

The 2-9 record, the eight consecutive Pac-12 losses and being the lone victim of a horrible Colorado team are only part of the story of this year’s Cougars. Leach has publicly questioned players’ heart, has stoked a season-long quarterback controversy and kicked star receiver Marquess Wilson off the team.

Things found a new low when Wilson wrote a letter accusing Leach and his staff of physical and emotional abuse.

Could one little win over the cross-state rival make all that drama become a footnote to the 2012 season?

“I don’t know,” Leach said this week. “We need to win the game just for the sake of winning the game and playing good football.”

He could have left it at that, but Leach couldn’t resist the urge to add, in a shot at Wilson: “Most of the drama centered around selfish people who are beginning to reveal who they are.”

A WSU win could be just as program-changing for the Huskies. Four straight wins have put UW back into a bowl game for the third year in a row, and an eight-win regular season would mark a program high since 2001, so UW pride is swelling right now.

In some ways, the Sarkisian era can provide a blueprint for just how important season-ending momentum is to a program.

A pair of wins over WSU and Cal, by an aggregate score of 72-10, closed out a 2009 season that saw UW finish with a respectable 5-7 record in Sarkisian’s first year after taking over a winless squad.

The next year, the Huskies won their final four games — the first three rallied them into a Holiday Bowl bid, then UW upset Nebraska in its first bowl game since 2002.

“I think it’s great heading into the offseason, that kind of stuff,” Sarkisian said this week. “It speaks to the coaching and guys trying to get better and working with players and individual things. I’d like for us to start fast one of these years and close well and put it all together, and hopefully that’s next year.”

Leach would love nothing more than to close out his first season at WSU the way Sarkisian did in his first year at UW — that is, with momentum heading into the offseason.

“I think it’s great toward your offseason; there’s no question,” Leach said. “We have some guys that are a couple offseasons short and need to make the most of the offseason coming up. This is a good way to go toward the offseason.”

A WSU program that has been in a freefall for the good part of a decade has one last chance to make the 2012 season seem like a step in the right direction.

“We’ve had some disappointments,” Leach said this week, “but I think we’ve grown as a team.”

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