Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our competitors to the ring.
In the purple corner, measuring in at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, the Montlake Missile, No. 1 John Ross!
In the crimson corner, measuring in at 6-foot and 190 pounds, the Pride of the Palouse, No. 9 Gabe Marks!
Let’s get it on!
When the Washington Huskies and the Washington State Cougars take the field Friday afternoon at Martin Stadium in Pullman for the Apple Cup, the 109th meeting between the two schools, it all may come down to which team’s star receiver is able to make the bigger impact.
Friday’s Apple Cup is the most meaningful game between Washington and Washington State in 35 years, as the winner earns a spot in the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 11 in Santa Clara, Calif. The last time a game between the Huskies and Cougars had this much on the line was 1981, when both teams entered the day with a chance at a Rose Bowl berth.
But while Friday’s game is a winner-takes-all affair, it’s also the perfect platform for Ross and Marks to show exactly what they can do — as well as show who can do it better.
Ross and Marks are arguably the two best receivers in the Pac-12. Ross, Washington’s standout junior, ranks third in the conference with 64 receptions, second in receiving yardage with 991, and first in receiving touchdowns with 15. Marks, Washington State’s star senior, ranks second in the conference in receptions (74), fourth in receiving yardage (755), and second in receiving TDs (12). It’s almost certain that both will be named first-team All-Pac-12.
But while Ross and Marks may be equally effective, they have different playing styles.
Ross is all about speed. Ross, who’s been clocked at 4.3 in the 40-yard dash, possesses the pure speed to blow past opposing defensive backs. But he also has the quickness that allows him to turn on a dime. He can turn a deep ball into a big play by getting behind the secondary, and he can turn a short pass into a big play by cutting his way through a bewildered defense.
“He’s a good player,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said this week about Ross. “He’s fast, just a good overall player.”
Meanwhile, Marks’ game is predicated more on his ability to make difficult catches look easy. Marks possesses incredible body control and leaping ability, with a catching radius that goes far beyond the norm for a receiver of his size. When one thinks of Marks’ big plays, one pictures him going up in traffic to snatch the ball above defenders, or stretching his toes as far as possible along the sidelines to remain in bounds.
“He can get in and out of breaks, he’s a playmaker on the ball, and he’s been in that system now for a while, so he’s an expert in that system,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said about Marks. “The combination of all those things make him a tough guy to defend.”
But Ross and Marks took different paths to reach their current positions.
For Ross this is his first season as a true No. 1 threat in Washington’s passing game. Ross played through a torn meniscus in his right knee as a sophomore in 2014, an injury that hampered his effectiveness. Then during spring workouts in 2015 he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and torn meniscus in his left knee while trying to protect his right, wiping out his entire 2015 season. Prior to this season Ross had just 33 catches as a Husky. He’ll more than double that this season.
“I think he’s played spectacularly,” Petersen said. “This is a guy we’re extremely proud of. We’ve talked about this before in terms of how he’s come back from his injury, but not just that. Even if he didn’t have the injury, just the improvements he’s made in his game. I said this a lot before the season, to me John hadn’t played a whole bunch of receiver, he hadn’t had a chance to really work on his game and grind through it and really become a polished receiver. So that’s what he’s done.
“I think there’s a lot of guys who can run really fast, and then there’s a very small handful who can run really fast and be detailed in terms of how to run the routs, in and out of breaks, be able to control that,” Petersen continued. “I’ve been around a lot of fast guys who can not get in and out of breaks just because they’re just so fast. (Ross) can do all those different type of things.”
Marks, in contrast, has been a key member of the Cougars’ offense since 2012. He surpassed the 100-catch mark last season as a junior, and last week Marks became the new Pac-12 leader in career receptions with 301. He’s also the Washington State career record holder in receiving yards (3,314) and receiving touchdowns (36). He was named first-team All-Pac-12 each of the previous two seasons.
“I think he’s played pretty well,” Leach said about Marks this season. “Like anybody he can improve, but I think overall he’s played pretty decent.
“I’ve had some really good receivers,” Leach added when asked about where Marks ranks among receivers he’s coached. “You have a funny way of falling in love with the ones you have right now, so we’re really excited about Gabe because he’s the one we have right now. I think he’s done a really good job of steadily improving — he was able to play early. He comes out of his cuts quickly, he’s knowledgeable, he plays the ball in the air well. I think he’s steadily improved in his time here.”
Both could be on NFL fields next season. Ross projects as a smaller deep threat at the next level, similar to the Seattle Seahawks’ Tyler Lockett. Marks projects as a possession slot receiver, more in the mold of the Seahawks’ Doug Baldwin.
But before that they’ll both be on the field Friday in Pullman , and they’ll be the players each team’s offense depends on to make the big play.
For more on the Seattle sports scene, check out Nick Patterson’s Seattle Sidelines blog at www.heraldnet.com/tag/seattle-sidelines, or follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.