The Huskies are after a bowl game and the Cougars are playing better.
So look what suddenly sprang to life just as winter descended — an Apple Cup with some real bite.
A few weeks ago, the Washington-Washington State game loomed as another yawner, interesting to participants and diehards but an afterthought otherwise.
But two victories by Washington the past two weeks, each coming after the most impressive performance by the Cougars (a 31-14 victory over Oregon State on Nov. 13), give the game both meaning and intrigue.
It’s the first time since 2002 each team has won its game previous to the Apple Cup.
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And for the Huskies, more than bragging rights are at hand as a victory will assure the school its first bowl game since 2002.
Washington improved to 5-6 with the dramatic 16-13 victory Saturday at California when the Huskies drove 79 yards in the last 4:39 to score on a 1-yard run on fourth down by Chris Polk as time ran out.
Only three Pac-10 teams are bowl eligible right now, and only two others (including UW) have a chance to get there. And with the Pac-10 having six contracted bowl agreements, virtually any team that gets to 6-6 will go bowling.
Washington’s most likely destination if it can beat the Cougars is the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30 in San Diego. But there is an outside shot of moving up into the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, or down to the Sun Bowl in El Paso.
The locale, though, hardly matters to the Huskies, who haven’t been anywhere in the postseason since the last game of the Rick Neuheisel era, a 34-24 loss to Purdue in the 2002 Sun Bowl.
“It means everything in the world,” UW linebacker Cort Dennison said of the Apple Cup in the happy din of the Cal victory that kept Washington’s bowl hopes alive. “Do you want to go to a bowl game? You’ve got to beat the team that is your rival.”
And they all know the history of the Apple Cup is one team taking delight in spoiling the bowl hopes of the other, even if that hasn’t happened for a while.
Not since 2006 has either team entered the game with a bowl game on the line. That year, it was UW playing the role of spoiler in beating WSU 35-32 to drop the Cougars to 6-6 when 7-5 likely would have netted a bowl berth.
“They want to be able to say they took our bowl hopes away and get the Apple Cup back,” said UW running back Chris Polk. “It’s going to be real hectic. They’re not going to just lay down and let us stomp over them in their house. They’re going to come and bring their A game. So it’s going to a real good one.”
Talk of even a mediocre Apple Cup might have seemed like empty rhetoric a few weeks ago. But then the Cougars went to Corvallis and dominated Oregon State, a team that took the Huskies to double overtime in Seattle.
And given that WSU has had two weeks off since that game and should be healthy, the Cougars might actually pose the stiffest test of the three teams UW has had to beat to get to a bowl. Specifically — unlike UCLA and Cal — WSU will have its starting quarterback available in Jeff Tuel, who spearheads an improving passing game.
Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt — whose unit has not allowed a touchdown in seven quarters — acknowledged after the Cal game that the Cougars figure to be harder to defend than the Bears.
“Washington State will pose some different problems because they have a nice passing game,” Holt said. “But we are where we need to be, improving and playing well down the stretch. And we need to. When you have an opportunity to finish the season strong and maybe get to six wins and a bowl berth, you’ve got to play good defense. I think the kids feel it.”
Tuel was out with an injury a year ago when the Huskies turned in their finest hour under Holt, a 30-0 victory over the Cougars that was the first shutout in the Apple Cup since 1968.
And even with the celebration still lingering following the Cal victory, the thoughts of Washington players were turning quickly to the Cougars.
“The Apple Cup is always a real intense game, a real tough game,” said senior safety Nate Williams. “We hate them and they hate us just as much, so I’m excited for it.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or email@example.com.