Jim Moore: To keep storybook season going, WSU Cougars have to snap Apple Cup skid
On Friday the Huskies and Cougars will play in an Apple Cup that figures to be one of the most memorable games in the long history of the in-state rivalry. You know what’s at stake – the Pac-12 North title and a chance to play for the Pac-12 championship Nov. 30 against Utah.
For Washington, it’s a chance to salvage a season that started with hopes of returning to the championship picture in the College Football Playoff. For Washington State, it’s an outside chance to play in the national-championship playoff, but there’s much more on the line than that.
In fact, as a WSU alum, I don’t care about the remote possibility of making it to the final four as much as simply beating the Huskies. If we beat the Huskies and don’t make it to the CFP, fine. If we beat the Huskies and lose to Utah, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll take that over losing to the Huskies and not having the chance to play Utah. And if we beat the Huskies and beat Utah and don’t make it to the national championship playoff but go to the Rose Bowl instead? Sign me up for that best-of-both-worlds scenario, particularly if we face Michigan and have a chance for revenge after losing to the Wolverines in Pasadena in 1998.
Washington State is expected to move ahead of LSU and into the No. 7 spot in the CFP rankings when they’re released Tuesday afternoon, so the Cougs would be making progress but would still need quite a few things to happen to get to No. 4. Maybe there’s a shot if we see some upsets in conference championship games.
The other day I heard a guy from a sportsbook in Las Vegas say that the Cougs are “a fraudulent team from a garbage conference.” He had them at No. 17 in his power rankings, but that was before the Cougars crushed Arizona 69-28 Saturday night, an absolute mauling that featured 55 points in the first half.
I bristled when I heard that, but then I thought maybe he’s not too far off. I don’t feel like the Cougs are fraudulent in any way – you can only play who’s on your schedule, and if the conference is down, which I agree that it is, it’s not their fault. They’ve had two close calls against Utah and Cal and pretty much disposed of everyone else with ease. If Vegas guy thinks he’s so smart with his evaluations and the Cougars are that bad, why have they covered all but one point spread all year long?
Doesn’t matter, we’ll find out one way or the other in the next two weeks. In the Apple Cup, if you’re a Husky fan, you’re banking on the fact that you’ve owned the Cougs in the last five games and hold a large historical advantage in the series too. Since 2013, the Cougars have been non-competitive in their biggest game of the year, losing to the Huskies by an average of 24 points and not scoring more than 17 in any of the Apple Cups.
If you’re a Coug fan, you’re thinking WSU has the better team this year based on what we’ve seen from the Cougars and the Huskies. Washington has played OK at times, but no one thinks the Dawgs have played well. More often than not, the Huskies have played below expectations. Meanwhile the Cougs have exceeded everyone’s expectations. I thought we’d go 6-6 at best, and when I saw that San Jose Mercury News reporter Jon Wilner predicted a 3-9 season, I could see that happening too.
No one saw 10-1 coming, yet here it is, and now those guys in Vegas think 11-1 is definitely within reach – the Cougs are favored by three points in the Apple Cup.
I honestly don’t know what to think about the game. I go into it feeling like we have the better team and should have an advantage playing at home. But I’ve felt that way so many times before, and the Huskies blew our doors off anyway. I’m also concerned that the Huskies’ defense might be better than the Cal defense that limited the Cougs to 19 points earlier this month.
I do know how I’ll feel at the game. If we’re behind, I’ll be thinking: “Uh oh, here we go again.” If we’re ahead, I’ll be thinking: “Man, I hope we don’t blow it.” I’ve been watching Apple Cups from a Coug perspective for 44 years now, and it’s hard to shake the dread and doubt that goes with being a Coug fan, always hoping for the best and too frequently getting the worst in the Apple Cup.
What will make it different this year? Gardner Minshew, Washington State’s Heisman Trophy candidate. The kid who started mustache mania in Pullman. The kid who does not appear to have a care in the world. He’s just having a great time playing college football. I was sitting on a couch nervous as heck when we were tied 13-13 with Cal, and then I watched Minshew dancing on the sideline to “Mo Bamba” before the Cougar offense went on the field in the fourth quarter.
Minshew’s carefree attitude is one of the reasons why I like our chances. Nothing will faze him. And from a more tangible point of view, I like that the Huskies’ pass rush has been so-so at best this year, perfect for the Air Raid and an O-line that has allowed only nine sacks. Plus I think first-year defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will come up with a game plan that should pester UW quarterback Jake Browning and cause him to throw an interception or two.
This isn’t really objective analysis, so bear with me, but there’s a big part of me, the crimson-and-gray part, that feels like the Cougs are going to win in decisive fashion. Remember how the Huskies scored 70 on the Ducks to end their 12-game losing streak in 2016? It was an emphatic end to the Ducks’ dominance.
I’ll straddle the fence, early in Apple Cup week anyway, and say this – it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the Huskies win again. But I won’t be surprised if the Cougs win by 40 either.
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