By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — For the first time in a long time when it comes to the Apple Cup, the response to the old rivalry cliche, “you can throw out the records when these teams meet,” is no longer, “Really, we can? Yes, please.”
Welcome to the 2013 Apple Cup, where for the first time in over a decade, both teams actually have winning records and bowl games in their future. Sure, both teams feel like they could be better than their current records — 7-4 for Washington and 6-5 for Washington State. But despite the ups and downs of this season for the Huskies and Cougars, the first Apple Cup between two bowl-eligible teams since 2002 is a big deal.
“I think it’s great,” said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. “I think it’s great for our state. I think it’s great for Northwest football that both programs are really moving in the right direction because there are tremendous fans here in the Northwest, especially in our state. I think this rivalry is a very unique one in that so many households are split, friendships get put on hold for about three-and-a-half hours. But that’s what college football is all about, that’s what these types of rivalries are about and that’s what makes the Apple Cup so special. The better the two teams are performing, the better the environment for the game, and I’m hoping in the near future this game is deciding who is playing for the Pac-12 championship. I think our fans — theirs and ours — deserve that.”
Neither team is quite to the level Sarkisian is dreaming of — where this game has Rose Bowl implications — but to understand just how significant today’s game is, you have to consider where both programs have been in recent years. Only five years ago, the Apple Cup wasn’t so much a rivalry game as it was a national punch line. The Cougars came into the game with only one victory, and that was against a lower-division opponent, and Washington was winless, and would remain so after an overtime loss in Pullman, going 0-12 in Tyrone Willingham’s final season.
Under Sarkisian, the Huskies improved quickly, then hit a plateau that they’re trying to move past in their final two games of this season — more on this in a second — while Washington State’s struggles continued with just seven wins in the next three seasons under Paul Wulff, then a 3-9 season in Mike Leach’s first year. Things have started clicking — at times anyway — for the Cougars in Leach’s second season, and after back-to-back wins to earn bowl eligibility, Washington State comes to Seattle a team playing with confidence as it adjusts to a new system.
“They provide a great challenge for us and they’ve made really good strides and they’re a good team,” Sarkisian said. “Just like anything, when you go anywhere, regardless of the system — and obviously coach Leach has his own system — sometimes it takes a year to get things in place to really get it going, to get the belief to buy into the system. They’re moving the ball well. … 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.”
While for Washington State this game is a chance to continue that growth in Year 2, for the Huskies it is something of a must-win game for a team and a coach that have gone 7-6 for three straight seasons. At 7-4 with today’s game and a bowl game remaining, anything less that 8-5 would be a major disappointment on Montlake.
“It’d be huge,” quarterback Keith Price told reporters. “It’d be huge. I’m not sure when the last time the program was able to achieve that.”
Told it was in 2000 that the Huskies last won nine or more games, Price smiled and said, “That’s a while. That just speaks volume about our coaches and the players we have here.”
Sarkisian is confident this year’s team is the best he has had in five seasons at Washington, but he also knows that improvement ultimately has to show up in the win column.
“I think it’s big, because it’s on paper,” he said. “You can say, ‘They improved because the number says they improved.’ I think it’s big for the veterans on this team, the seniors, juniors — especially the seniors, for them to walk off the field Friday after the Apple Cup, if we can get to that eighth win that they know they improved this program. Because sometimes for them, it’s quantitative, you know. They look at the stat of wins and losses. I can tell you we’re a better football team today than we were a year ago at this time, but a win Friday, I think for so many people justifies, ‘Well OK, they are better.’ And maybe for our players, quite honestly.”
For the Cougars the game has just as much meaning, not just because it’s the Apple Cup, but also because a 6-6 season would leave them bowl eligible, but would hardly guarantee that extra game, while 7-5 would assure them a bowl game. As for who has more to gain or lose, that probably just depends on whether you bleed crimson or purple, but regardless of your allegiances, be glad that we’re talking about a Apple Cup in which there is more at stake than just pride. It’s been a while.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.