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Washington State’s turnaround could set up an Apple Cup for the ages

The only unbeaten teams in Pac-12 play, WSU and UW could be playing for the North title in the Apple Cup. (AP)

A few weeks ago, the Cougars were 0-2 and all we heard were stories involving the Pullman Police Department and others with Mike Leach saying his team wasn’t tough enough. Finishing 6-6 and going to a bowl game seemed preposterous at that point. It appeared then that the only way Washington State could salvage its season would be with a win in the Apple Cup.

But Sunday night in his weekly bowl projections for ESPN, Brett McMurphy put WSU in the Rose Bowl against Michigan. That would be cool on a lot of levels, including a game against Jim Harbaugh and a chance for revenge against a Michigan team that held off the Cougs in the 1998 Rose Bowl.

Three weeks ago, a shellacking of Idaho did nothing to convince me that everything was headed in the right direction again. A shellacking of Oregon that followed was encouraging, but I wondered how much of it had to do with the Cougs being that good or the Ducks being that bad.

Saturday’s shellacking of Stanford left no doubt. The Cougs dominated on both sides of the ball. We’ve seen games like that from the offense before, but not as much from the defense, not on the road against a 15th-ranked opponent like that.

WSU has two legitimate defensive play-makers in pass-rusher and run-stuffer Hercules Mata’afa and safety Shalom Luani, our combo-platter version of the Seahawks’ Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.

I enjoyed watching our defense fly around more than seeing the offense inflicting its damage. And what’s been great about the offense is seeing a complementary component to the Air Raid – a ground game with Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and James Williams all running hard. They didn’t pick up 280 yards like they did against Oregon but were still effective enough.

I liked that Stanford’s defense had to respect a running game and couldn’t just tee off on quarterback Luke Falk. It’s a good sign for the rest of the season, too, because every Cougar fan knows the team’s success hinges on keeping Falk healthy. Falk got his knee banged up on one play and was hit mid-slide on another, causing concern as he gathered his faculties while lying on his back.

The Cougars’ offense did something against Stanford I’d never seen before against a David Shaw-coached team – they wore down the Cardinal’s defense in the fourth quarter. I didn’t feel like Stanford quit, but you could tell its players were tired and knew their hopes of winning were long gone anyway.

We’re used to seeing the Cougars light up scoreboards, but they also unlit Stanford’s offense, excelling in my new acronym as it applies to defense. PAWIM stands for Points Allowed When It Matters, and in this very important category, the Cougs allowed only a field goal. Stanford’s touchdowns came on a pick-six and a pass reception on the last play of the game when it trailed 42-10.

Washington and WSU have the only two unbeaten conference records in the Pac-12 North, setting up the possibility of a showdown for the division title in the Apple Cup.

Hate to say it, but the Huskies have the better team right now. They will be favored in every game the rest of the way but could stumble at Utah on Oct. 29 or perhaps at home in November against USC.

The Cougars face UCLA this week, and the Bruins could be without quarterback Josh Rosen, who suffered a throwing-shoulder injury in a 23-20 loss to Smokin’-Lock-of-the-Week pick Arizona State Saturday night.

Certainly WSU has a tough schedule ahead as well, but the emergence of a ground game and aggressive defense gives me hope that it could be an Apple Cup for the ages next month.

The Go 2 Guy also writes for SeattlePI.com and KitsapSun.com. You can reach Jim at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @cougsgo.