By JOHN SLEEPER
PULLMAN – The big reason to worry for Washington is that it comes into the 2000 Apple Cup pretty banged up, especially at tailback.
The Huskies’ depth there never will be as severely tested as it will be today. Paul Arnold and Willie Hurst are out with a bad back and a broken collarbone, respectively. Freshman Rich Alexis, their top ballcarrier on the season, missed some of the UCLA game last week with a sprained shoulder, although he later came back, finished with 127 rushing yards and was named Pacific-10 Conference offensive player of the week.
That leaves junior Braxton Cleman, the fourth-string tailback who spent some time at fullback this season. Not only that, but Washington coach Rick Neuheisel has been running freshman Sean Sweat there in practice this week. Sweat hasn’t had a carry all year.
“He’s in the depth,” Neuheisel said. “He’s got to be ready.”
So this is what the Huskies (9-1, 6-1 Pac-10) are facing today against the Cougars (4-6, 2-5) at Martin Stadium with stakes as high as they can possibly be.
A Husky victory, coupled with an Oregon State win over Oregon in the Civil War (three hours before Apple Cup kicks off) sends Washington to the Rose Bowl. Even if Oregon wins, the Huskies are a good bet to bag a berth in a Bowl Championship Series game.
But the Cougars appear to be in a prime spot to ruin Washington’s dreams and send the Huskies to either the Holiday or Sun bowls. One need only look to 1982 and ‘83, when they tripped Washington and knocked the Huskies out of the Rose Bowl.
“The pressure is definitely on the Huskies, not the Cougs,” WSU coach Mike Price said. “We’re going into it a little more relaxed than we have in the past. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
It’s not that Washington State isn’t capable of pulling off the upset. The Cougars’ record could be as high as 7-3, had they prevailed in their three overtime defeats in a four-week span. One of those losses came against conference-leading Oregon, 27-24, when the Ducks blocked a field-goal attempt to end it.
Five of Washington State’s defeats were by seven points or less. The Cougars fell at Arizona in three overtimes, 53-47, and pushed Arizona State and Oregon to extra sessions before falling. Early in the season, they lost to Idaho, 21-17.
“I’m real proud of our football team and the way we hung together as a team through a lot of adversity,” Price said. “We would have liked to have been bowl-eligible coming into this game and we’re not. But our players played very hard in every single game we’ve played this year, right down to the bitter end.”
The Cougars come into the game with good feelings after a 33-27 victory at USC Saturday. It came without their star quarterback, Jason Gesser, who broke his tibia the previous week against Oregon.
However, Matt Kegel, he of interesting genetic makeup, filled in admirably for Gesser, throwing for 242 yards on just 12 completions. One came on an 88-yard TD throw to Marcus Williams, the second-longest pass play in school history.
Kegel, a cousin of Ryan Leaf, has much the same brashness as his cousin. When reminded that the Huskies likely will try to present him with a wide variety of looks on defense, something that, puzzlingly, USC didn’t do, Kegel kind of shrugged.
“Bring it on,” he told reporters.
“The guys believe in him,” Price said. “He’ll be just fine.”
Kegel runs an offense much similar to that of Oregon State’s. The Cougars routinely use one back and as many as five receivers in their spread offense. It is an offense that game the Huskies trouble against Oregon State.
The trick is for the defensive line to remain in their gaps and avoid getting sucked in to the multiple stunts and trickery the blockers put on. If a defensive lineman leaves his gap to follow the blocking flow, he’ll likely find a ballcarrier running through it for big yards.
“You have to have gap integrity and that is one of the hardest things to teach defensive players because they’ve been told to get to the ball,” Neuheisel said.
Lack of gap integrity may well result in a gap in Washington’s season.
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