Apple Cup carries national title implications
It will be an Apple Cup like few others.
No. 6 Washington will play at No. 23 Washington State on Friday, with the Pac-12 North title on the line for both teams. The game, which kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET in Pullman, Wash., will mark just the sixth time since the AP poll debuted in 1936 that both teams are ranked.
For the Huskies (10-1 overall, 7-1), there is more than just a berth in the conference title game on the line. They could have a spot in the College Football Playoff with two more victories.
“I just want them to prepare like they have and go over and compete like they have, which I know they will,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said of his team.
“We know it's like, 'All this hard work kind of comes down to this.' But it's really hard for me to say, like, 'OK, now we're really all-in on this.' I just think they've really been invested this whole year, every game.
“But it'll be exciting. They get the rivalry. They get that we're playing a heck of a team in a really hostile situation.”
Washington bounced back from its only loss, to USC, with a 44-18 win over Arizona State on Saturday. Washington State (8-3, 7-1) had its eight-game winning streak snapped with a 38-24 loss at Pac-12 South-leading Colorado.
There hasn't been so much on the line for both teams since 1981. Washington won that Apple Cup 23-10 to deny Washington State the Pac-10 title, which the Huskies won when USC beat UCLA on the same day.
Both Petersen and Cougars coach Mike Leach put their players off limits to the media this week.
“There's a lot of distractions. I don't want them distracted,” Leach said. “I want them focused in on just playing.”
As for that stuff on the field, Washington will try to draw inspiration from last season's 45-10 win over Washington State, although that comes with a caveat. The Cougars didn't have quarterback Luke Falk.
“That always frustrated me (that Falk didn't play), because all the Cougar fans, they're like, 'Oh, if we had Luke Falk …,'” Huskies defensive tackle Elijah Qualls told the Seattle Times. “Come on, man. I'm not going to lie: The dude is good. But 35 points? I don't know about that.”
It will be a battle of two brilliant quarterbacks.
Falk has 3,935 passing yards this season, fourth-most in Washington State single-season history. Falk, directing Leach's prolific Air Raid system, tops the nation in completions per game (34.6) and completion percentage (71.4).
Leach said Monday he expects Falk to return for his senior season.
Washington quarterback Jake Browning leads the Pac-12 with 37 touchdown passes — one more than Falk — and is fourth nationally in passing efficiency with a rating of 180.7.
“He does a really job from the neck up,” Leach said of Browning. “Him and Luke are very similar that way, I think.”
Both quarterbacks have elite receivers. Washington State's Gabe Marks is the Pac-12 career leader with 301 receptions, including 74 this season, with 12 going for touchdowns. Ross has all kinds of speed, with 64 catches for 991 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Ross has a sidekick in Dante Pettis, who has four 100-yard receiving games this season. Marks lost his main sidekick two games ago when receiver River Cracraft suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Washington's offense is more traditionally balanced, as the Huskies have gone over 200 yards on the ground seven times this season, led by running back Myles Gaskin.
Washington State is 114th nationally in rushing at 132.5 yards per game, but the Cougars can run the ball more effectively than most Leach teams behind the trio of Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks. They have combined for 1,515 yards.
Washington has lost two of its top defenders to season-ending injuries — linebackers Joe Mathis and Azeem Victor — but still managed to limit USC and Arizona State to 128 rushing yards on 63 carries in the past two weeks.
The Huskies are often able to generate a pass rush without blitzing, which would give them ample numbers in the back end to defend against Washington State's spread attack. Cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Kevin King, and safety Budda Baker, are postseason award candidates in one of the nation's best secondaries.
Washington State is no slouch defensively. The Cougars, led up front by defensive end Hercules Mata'afa, are first in the Pac-12 against the run, allowing 129.7 yards per game. WSU also got back senior nose tackle Robert Barber last week. He had missed three games following legal entanglements.