It’s refreshing to have the Apple Cup ripple with significance for both teams, and not for just one – but you could see that outcome developing as the Huskies and Cougars hurtled down their parallel paths.
The restraints have been officially lifted. The blinders are off. It’s not just OK to look ahead, it’s demanded. Because what lies ahead is the most dramatic, delicious, meaningful Apple Cup in recent memory.
Oh, you could argue that some of the luster has been removed by virtue of Washington’s loss to USC last week and Colorado defeating Washington State on Saturday. And technically, that might be true. But this game, as the anticipation built up through the course of the season, has enough luster to spare.
“It’s going to be a very, very intense game,” said Huskies defensive tackle Elijah Qualls.
The dynamics remain the same as they appeared headed all along: the winner, no questions asked, wins the North Division and advances to the Pac-12 title game, with all the good things contained therein, and thereafter. For the Huskies, it means keeping their national title hopes alive. For the Cougars, it means keeping their Rose Bowl hopes alive.
Those random losses did absolutely nothing to change that, and should do little to diminish the anticipation for Friday in Pullman. After the stumble against USC, the Huskies restored their sheen with Saturday’s dominating 44-18 victory over Arizona State at Husky Stadium, one that featured a flurry of impact plays on offense and defense.
It’s refreshing to have the Apple Cup ripple with significance for both teams, and not for just one – but you could see that outcome developing as the Huskies and Cougars hurtled down their parallel paths. Even their recent stumbles were more or less in lockstep, leaving them with identical 7-1 records in the Pac-12.
So it won’t be a battle of conference unbeatens, which would have been the ultimate. It will still have all the elements of a rivalry game, with the added bonus of having major ramifications for both, a rare quality for recent Apple Cups.
“Everyone knows it’s a big game regardless of what the records are, and we’ve got two really good teams with good records and a lot to play for,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “I know everybody really plays hard in that game anyways. Now it’s like everybody had hoped it would be.”
Qualls allowed that he wished Washington State had beaten Colorado, just to amp up the optics for the upcoming showdown.
“That would have been that much more exciting of a game,” he said, although clarifying that even as is, it figures to be one of the most highly charged games he’s ever played in. And Qualls let us all in a secret: Despite all that “one week at a time” talk, as sincere as it is, they were fully aware of what was lurking in the future.
“We don’t focus past the next week, but we see it,” he said. “If this (holding up his hand) is our goal, the bigger picture is in the background. We see it. But we’re focused on what the next step is, because all that other stuff doesn’t matter if we don’t get this accomplished.”
So, yes, the Huskies have known, however vaguely, that they were potentially headed for a showdown for the ages against Washington State – or at least since the Cougars rebounded from a horrible season-opening loss to Eastern Washington and the narrow loss to Boise State that followed.
“We’ve always known,” Qualls said. “Especially heading into the season, we knew it was there.”
The Huskies had all the attention, at least initially. While the Cougars were all but written off after the early struggles, Washington went into the season ranked – over-ranked, in Petersen’s view – but proceeded to show that it was all warranted.
“This was a hyped-up season for us,” said wide receiver Chico McClatcher, who sparked the Huskies on Saturday with a 75-yard reception for their first touchdown. “But we have to prove it every week. We just want to play the best football we’ve ever played the rest of the season.”
They will have to, against a Cougar team that offers a unique challenge on offense, and can be formidable on defense, despite their showing against Colorado. Throw in the usual motivation of rivalry week, mix in the high stakes for both teams, and you can fully expect a game that will teem with emotion.
“It’s going to be amazing energy,” said Husky linebacker Keishawn Bierria, who put a bow on the Husky victory by taking an onside kick and returning it 46 yards for a touchdown.”
“We’re just really excited to play for something that hasn’t been done in a long time,” added Budda Baker.
The Huskies, of course, have aspirations that extend well beyond Pullman on Friday – as do the Cougars, for that matter. And be assured that the Huskies are aware of it all – the possible Pac-12 title game, which would likely open the door to the rarified environs of the national playoffs.
Oh, they see it, all right. But they also know that it will all go poof if they stumble against Washington State. It’s going to be intense, and it figures to be memorable.
And now, finally, it’s almost here.