By Jacob Thorpe The Spokesman-Review
PULLMAN — The football coaches at Washington State allow their players 24 hours to reflect after every game to revel in their victory or lament their defeat.
But while it would be easy to savor the first time the words “bowl eligible” have been spoken around Pullman since 2006, the Cougars’ minds are already drifting to Washington.
“It sounds good, it sounds great. The two sweetest words I’ve heard in awhile,” safety Deone Bucannon said. “At the same time, it’s only being eligible. We’re not guaranteed anything and we’re going to attack the next week like Coach Leach wants us to.”
It’s been awhile since the Apple Cup had any lasting meaning beyond rubberstamping the ineptitude of UW’s 2008 season with an 0-12 record. While in-state bragging rights are reason enough for fans of both programs to pay attention, recently it’s been rare for the game to hold the promise of a reward greater than a year spent with the Apple Cup trophy and a photo with the governor.
But for the first time since 2003 both teams enter Friday’s rivalry game with more wins than losses. In that season the Cougars were left out of the postseason, illustrating that despite the Cougars’ win over Utah on Saturday, this game will have plenty on the line.
For the Huskies, the Apple Cup represents a chance to atone for last year’s two-game slide and to secure the elusive eighth win for the first time in Steve Sarkisian’s tenure as head coach.
It also presents an opportunity to avenge last year’s overtime loss to the Cougars in Pullman. The Huskies held a 28-10 lead in that game but frittered it away with a combination of turnovers and penalties.
A seventh win is at stake for WSU, and the difference between “bowl eligible” and “bowl guaranteed.” Only 70 teams can play in a bowl game each year, and there are already a sufficient number of eligible teams with potentially more on the way.
But seven wins would not only guarantee a bowl berth for WSU, it would likely mean that the Cougars could play in one of the seven Pac-12 affiliated bowls, rather than having to lobby for a spot in a bowl affiliated with a conference that didn’t have enough eligible teams.
“We need one more,” quarterback Connor Halliday said. “Seven will guarantee it, six you might not get it. So we need one more.”
WSU’s veterans are surprisingly inexperienced when it comes to the state’s biggest rivalry. Halliday, a junior, has never played in an Apple Cup, and no WSU player has played in Husky Stadium, which was undergoing a renovation when the Huskies last hosted the game.
The Cougars have played their best football in charged environments, winning three Pac-12 road games, nearly beating Auburn on the road and taking advantage of a “must win” atmosphere on Saturday.
After the Utah win Leach joked that the Cougars “just need to have Senior Night every night.”
The most meaningful Apple Cup in years will have to make do.