Apple Cup 2011: Not much at stake for WSU or UW

When Paul Wulff returned to his alma mater at Washington State

he inherited the shell of a football program, beset by poor

recruiting, academic sanctions that led to scholarship reductions

and a level of apathy.

Whether he’s done enough in four years to bring the Cougars

closer to the level of respectability their fans demand is a

polarizing debate among the crimson-and-gray faithful, and a

decision that ultimately lies in the hands of Washington State

athletic director Bill Moos.

It’s with that backdrop that the Cougars enter the 104th Apple

Cup on Saturday night against rival Washington at Seattle’s

CenturyLink Field.

Any tangible significance at stake in this version of the Apple

Cup escaped a week ago when Utah pulled out a 30-27 overtime

victory over the Cougars, ensuring Washington State (4-7) of

another year without a trip to the postseason.

Washington (6-5) wrapped up a bowl trip a month ago, though it’s

looked far from bowl-worthy while dropping its past three.

That leaves Wulff’s future as the ultimate unknown. It’s a

debate Cougars’ players and coaches attempt to avoid, but can’t

help hear. Moos indicated that a decision on whether Wulff will

return for the final year of his five-year contract could come

early next week.

”Of course you hear it, but I don’t pay attention to it,”

Cougars junior safety Tyree Toomer said. ”It’s something you can’t

control. You just have to focus on the task at hand.”

There are arguments on both sides of the Wulff debate. He took

over a program at one of its lowest points in the school’s history

and while the results haven’t been evident on the field, the

Cougars are undoubtedly a more talented and more competitive team

than in Wulff’s first two seasons.

The Cougars have already doubled their win total from a year ago

and had a pair of three-point losses to UCLA and Utah decided in

the final moments.

”They play confident, they play hard, they believe in what

they’re doing and that early on I think it was hard to do,”

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said.

”You inherit a football team that’s not all your guys, you come

with a different style, a different brand, a different approach,

but I think Paul has done a nice job of building that. I’m sure

he’d be the first one to tell you he would like there to be more

wins to show that, but when you watch the film it’s evident they’ve

gotten better.”

Despite the improvement in talent, the record is hard to ignore.

The Cougars are 9-39 since Wulff took over and their season will be

done following Saturday’s game for the eighth straight year since

beating Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl.

There’s also the extra pressure of the school in the midst of a

football specific fundraising campaign for a new press box/luxury

box complex and operations center – and wins mean dollars.

Wulff isn’t focusing on his future, rather how his young team

may grow from this season.

”I don’t think like that,” Wulff said. ”We have a great young

football team. This Is a good young team that is getting better and

better all the time.”

While much of the focus lies on Wulff’s future, there is a

growing debate in the Washington community on the merits of

defensive coordinator Nick Holt and a unit that continues to show

signs of regression.

A year ago, Washington entered the Apple Cup with its defense on

the rise, going seven quarters without giving up a touchdown before

the Cougars popped for 28 points.

This year, Washington’s defense is on pace to be among the worst

in school history, having allowed more than 400 yards of offense to

its opponents in four of the previous five games. Surprisingly,

Oregon is the only school not to top the 400 mark on the

Huskies.

Since routing Colorado 52-24 on Oct. 15, the Huskies are giving

up an average of 41.6 points and 466 yards in the past five

games.

”When you watch our defense and you are watching the film, in a

lot of aspects we have gotten better,” Sarkisian said. ”When you

watch the game the other night it’s a gain of 2, a gain of 1, a

gain of 3, a gain of 4, and then it’s a gain of 50, a gain of 30, a

gain of 29, so consistently, yeah, I think we are getting better.

But our ability to eliminate big plays still hasn’t gotten to the

point to where we need to be ultimately a really good defense. It

just hasn’t happened yet.”

Washington will get starting QB Keith Price back after he sat

out last week’s 38-21 loss at Oregon State because of injuries.

Price is only two TD passes short of tying Washington’s

single-season school record of 28, but the key for the Huskies will

likely be running back Chris Polk.

In last year’s Apple Cup, Polk posted the second-best rushing

day in Washington history, running for 284 yards on just 29 carries

and scoring a pair of touchdowns in the Huskies’ 35-28 victory that

earned the team a trip to the Holiday Bowl.

On the other side, Washington State will start Marshall

Lobbestael at QB after freshman Connor Halliday was hospitalized

with a lacerated liver suffered in last week’s loss to Utah.

Lobbestael has started 10 of 11 games this season and has dangerous

options in receivers Marquess Wilson and Jared Karstetter on the

outside.

”Arguably the best football they’ve played this year is with

Lobbestael at quarterback,” Sarkisian said. ”And so, their

schemes aren’t going to change; it’s the guy throwing the ball and

making it happen, and Marshall has really had a tremendous season,

especially early on when he was playing.”