On Friday afternoon, the Washington and Washington State football teams will meet in Pullman for the annual Apple Cup, with the winner in line to play in the Jan. 2 Rose Bowl.
Though it is unusual for both the Huskies and Cougars to be vying for such a grand prize in their regular-season finale, it is not unprecedented. The last time it happened was 35 years ago, and that 1981 game turned into an Apple Cup classic.
Washington State, coached by Jim Walden, came into Husky Stadium on that cold, gray November day tied with UCLA atop the Pac-10 Conference standings, both with 5-1-1 league records. Because WSU and UCLA had played to a tie in a midseason game, and because the Cougars had a better non-conference record than the Bruins, 14th-ranked WSU would win the league title and a Rose Bowl berth by beating the Huskies.
Washington, meanwhile, needed to beat the Cougars to keep its title hopes alive, and the Don James-coached Huskies also needed some help. With a 5-2 conference mark, 17th-ranked Washington would be the league champion only if USC also defeated UCLA in a game that would kick off about 45 minutes before the UW-WSU showdown.
Every Apple Cup has great emotion, of course, but the excitement for the 1981 game was off the charts. Washington State had not been to a bowl game in 51 years, while Washington was bidding for a second straight Rose Bowl appearance.
“Everything was on the line,” said Chuck Nelson, the UW place-kicker that day and a 1978 graduate of Everett High School. “It was effectively a playoff game against your (cross-state) rival.”
In the end the Huskies did their part, beating WSU 23-10. And fans with radios at Husky Stadium erupted with joy late in the game when it was announced that UCLA had missed a last-second field goal, allowing USC to hold on for a 22-21 victory. The two outcomes meant Washington was again Pasadena-bound.
“The Apple Cup and beating Washington State was always a real big deal,” said Mark Stewart, the head football coach at Mariner High School and a UW linebacker back in 1981. “And then to put (the Cougars) out of the Rose Bowl and put us in the Rose Bowl, it doesn’t get much bigger than that.”
For Ken Collins, an assistant superintendent in the Lake Stevens School District and a WSU defensive end that day, the loss remains one of the most disappointing of his playing career, which included high school, college and a brief stint in the NFL.
That season, Collins said, the Cougars “got on a roll early and started playing really well. … It was just a great year. The whole season was memorable, but that game was (particularly) memorable for what was at stake and kind of how it turned out.
“We wanted to win that game and go to the Rose Bowl,” he said, “but it didn’t happen.”
The game was a close battle early, with Washington State holding a 7-3 lead late in second quarter. But in the closing seconds before halftime, and on a third-and-2 play from the WSU 8-yard line, the momentum changed with one dramatic play.
UW quarterback Steve Pelleur made what was probably an ill-advised pass, trying to connect with wide receiver Paul Skansi in the right corner of the end zone. The pass wobbled in the wind and probably should have been intercepted by Washington State’s Nate Bradley, an all-conference cornerback who had inside position. But with the ball in the air Bradley slipped and Skansi ended up diving over the falling defender for a sprawling touchdown catch and a 10-7 UW halftime lead.
A photo of Skansi’s catch hangs today in the Husky Stadium concourse as one of the stadium’s all-time great moments.
That TD reception “changed the entire course of the game,” said Ken Emmil, a 1979 Snohomish High School graduate and a WSU linebacker that day. “That was a real turning point. … It was the biggest moment in the game.”
“It was an unbelievable catch, it really was,” Collins said. “And I think it probably was the play of the game in terms of a turning point.”
Early in the second half the Cougars got a field goal to tie the score, but Washington countered with a touchdown drive for a 17-10 margin. On WSU’s next possession, UW cornerback Vince Newsome made a crushing tackle on Cougar fullback Robert Williams to force a fumble, which the Huskies recovered.
“Vince Newsome made the biggest hit of the game,” Stewart said. “The ball was out … and it felt like it ignited the whole stadium.”
Minutes after the fumble recovery, Nelson kicked his second field goal of the game for a 20-10 lead. In the fourth quarter, and moments after the USC-UCLA outcome was announced, setting off a noisy celebration in Husky Stadium, Nelson added a third field goal for the eventual final score.
Given the postseason stakes, the 1981 Apple Cup was as exhilarating for Washington as it was devastating for the Cougars.
In the WSU locker room afterward “there were tears everywhere,” said Emmil, who is today an assistant superintendent for career and college readiness in the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Back then there was nothing like going to the Rose Bowl. That was the pinnacle. And we felt like we had the team to do it, so it was very disappointing.”
Weeks later, Washington State would play in San Diego’s Holiday Bowl, losing to Brigham Young 38-36. Washington would end its season on a much higher note, defeating Iowa 28-0 in the Rose Bowl and setting itself up to reach a No. 1 national ranking early the next season.
For Nelson, today the president and CEO of Seattle’s Washington Athletic Club, “the 1981 Apple Cup is one of the highlights” of his years in football.
“I played in a lot of significant games,” Nelson said, “and to get a chance to play in a game where both teams are all in with the highest stakes possible, with a conference championship and a Rose Bowl berth on the line, it was as satisfying a win as I had in my football career.”