SEATTLE — Chris Petersen made it clear that Washington’s season will be viewed as an underachievement no matter what happens in the Apple Cup. Such is the case of raised expectations after three straight appearances in New Year’s Six bowl games.
“We should compete for the Pac-12 championship. That’s the goal, and that’s what we should be able to do,” the Huskies coach said.
Across the state, Mike Leach is likely feeling the same at Washington State after three straight years of the Cougars being in the hunt for a Pac-12 North title.
It’s with a backdrop of disappointment for both programs that Washington and Washington State meet Friday for the 112th time in the Apple Cup. After three straight years of some of the most anticipated matchups in the history of the rivalry, this year’s meeting is a collective dud.
Washington (6-5, 3-5) has lost three of four, including last week’s offensive flop at Colorado. Washington State (6-5, 3-5) became bowl eligible thanks to Max Borghi’s last-second TD run to give the Cougars a 54-53 victory over Oregon State last Saturday.
The lack of importance has created little buzz about the matchup. Maybe that’s to be expected after the recent history when the stakes couldn’t be much higher. But outside of bragging rights and perhaps a better bowl game destination, there is little at stake this time around.
“I think it’s really big between the fans. You hear about it all the time,” Leach said. “I think the players, we’re trying to improve and that’s the biggest thing we can do this week.”
The loser will end up tied for last in the Pac-12 North. And for Washington State, it is trying to snap a six-game losing streak to the Huskies. A win by Washington this year would be the longest streak by either side since the Huskies won eight straight between 1974-81.
“We’re going to do everything we can to earn that seventh win and the fact that it’s Washington, we’ve struggled in the past, but as a team we’re really taking it on ourselves to not make this game anything more than it is,” Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon said. “It’s just another opportunity to improve.”
Gordon already owns the conference record for TD passes in a season at 45. He needs 80 yards passing to post the 16th 5,000-yard passing season at the FBS level. This will be Gordon’s first and only Apple Cup appearance after waiting his turn in Washington State’s quarterback hierarchy.
He’s hoping to have far better success than other Cougars QBs in recent seasons against the Huskies. In the past three meetings, Luke Falk and Gardner Minshew were held to 263.3 yards passing per game and threw eight interceptions.
Gordon has been a little sloppy with ball protection, throwing 14 interceptions. He also will be facing a Washington pass defense that while still good isn’t quite the elite group from recent seasons.
“I think we need to just ride the wave that we’re on,” Washington State wide receiver Renard Bell said.
Can Washington put together some offensive consistency that’s been lacking for big chunks of the season? The Huskies will have a chance against a Washington State defense that is giving up more than 31 points per game and ranks near the bottom of the conference in passing defense (ninth) and rush defense (11th). The Huskies have scored just 33 offensive points in the past eight quarters. Jacob Eason is completing just 56% of his passes and has thrown five interceptions in the past three games.
While Washington played well in its loss to Oregon, it hasn’t shown a major offensive punch since the second half of its win at Arizona.
“When we do get into a rhythm, when we do stay on the field, we can be pretty darn productive and good at times,” Petersen said.
Whether it’s Borghi for the Cougars or Salvon Ahmed for Washington, the running backs are likely to get plenty of touches this week. Borghi has 740 yards rushing and 10 rushing touchdowns, to go along with 69 receptions and four more scores. Ahmed needs 85 yards to reach 1,000 rushing for the season. He was shut down last week by Colorado but two games ago had a career-high 174 yards against Oregon State.
With the exception of the 2013 matchup, Washington has dominated the first half during its six-game winning streak over the Cougars. Combined over the six games, Washington is outscoring Washington State 107-30 in the first half. The only time Washington State led was when the Cougars had a 10-3 halftime edge in 2013.
The Cougars haven’t scored a first-quarter touchdown against Washington since 2012.