The Cougars, 10-1 and ranked seventh in the the AP Top 25 poll, have valid reasons to think this is their year. But they did in recent years as well. Skepticism will remain until they show they can hang with UW.
They’ve been too soft. Mike Leach hasn’t brought enough urgency into the rivalry. Their quarterback regressed, their offensive line was overmatched, their players simply weren’t good enough.
Theories abound as to why Washington State, over the past four years of head-to-head matchups between Leach and Chris Petersen, has collapsed like mushy McIntoshes when it came to the Apple Cup.
The Huskies have won each by double-digit totals, with a 27-point average margin of victory. The past two years, when hype was at its highest, the outcome has been a foregone conclusion by halftime, with Washington running up leads of 35-10 and 24-0.
It hasn’t been a lack of motivation, either. This will be the third consecutive season in which a Cougars victory in the Apple Cup would bring with it a Pac-12 North Division title and a trip to the conference championship game — the program’s first.
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And yet this rivalry has still resembled that between a hammer and a nail.
Here’s then-Cougars wide receiver Gabe Marks after WSU’s 45-17 loss — at Martin Stadium, no less — in 2016: “We’re soft.”
Here’s Leach after WSU’s 41-14 loss last year: “We played anxious, we played frantic, we overran things. Overpursued things, overtried, overextended — all the overs.”
So will it be different on Friday in Pullman? The Cougars, 10-1 and ranked seventh in the the AP Top 25 poll, have valid reasons to think so. But they did in those other years as well. Skepticism will remain until they actually go out and show they can hang with Petersen’s crew.
One consistent criticism has been Leach’s approach that it’s just another game. Perhaps that has kept the Cougars flat — though Petersen preaches pretty much the same philosophy. Washington State senior defensive back Hunter Dale said Monday that Leach’s demeanor for Apple Cup week in past years has been no different than when they play Boise State or Portland State.
“He’s one of the coaches that never changes how he approaches a game,” Dale said.
This might be the time for The Pirate to get a little feistier in rallying the Cougs. But Marks’ cutting remark about WSU’s softness gets more to the heart of the matter. The Huskies have indeed manhandled the Cougars in recent years, as confirmed by none other than Washington State linebacker Peyton Pelluer.
“The past couple of years, we’ve been out-physicaled,” Pelluer said Monday. “That’s my blunt observation.”
When those comments were relayed to Leach, he replied, “I think that’s probably true. All those guys are playing in the NFL and out-physicaling guys there.”
Pelluer added later, “I’m going to preach this week it’s going to be a dogfight, no pun intended. We have to come out and play to our standard, not treat it as anything more than it is, and just be violent. … There’s no reason for us to be out-physicaled any more.”
Petersen this week praised the Cougars’ offensive line and marveled at how few sacks they’ve allowed (nine) considering the frenetic pace at which WSU throws the ball.
In previous years, the Huskies’ rush has been able to disrupt the Cougars — and they’ve done it while bringing just three, for the most part. Last year, for instance, senior quarterback Luke Falk committed four turnovers, was sacked five times, and WSU set a new low for the Apple Cup with minus-24 rushing yards.
“Their front last year was a really good front,” Leach said, “and they were able to be disruptive with fewer people than some teams require. Their nose guard (Vita Vea) was outstanding, I thought.”
Leach then hastened to add, “None of the past five years has a great deal to do with right now. I’m not terribly focused on that. I’m focused on what we can do this week and on being the best team we can be.”
The biggest X-factor for the 2018 Cougars is senior transfer Gardner Minshew, who has been a revelation, and a sensation, at quarterback. Minshew has been masterful in picking up and executing Leach’s Air Raid offense, in which Falk seemed to struggle more as the years passed.
Asked to compare the two, Leach said, “Gardner has better feet and a good sense of the pocket. Both did a good job commanding the unit and managing the offense. The biggest thing they had in common is that the rest of the team drew from them.
“Gardner has that take-charge leadership quality. He’s in the middle of it. Luke would sit back and instruct. Gardner leads from the front.”
The Cougars certainly appear to have embraced Minshew (and his mustache) in every way, and he is well on his way to becoming a folk hero on the Palouse. An Apple Cup victory, which would keep alive their national playoff hopes, deepens the bond even further.
Though he wasn’t here for the past debacles, Minshew observed that the Cougars are “playing with a different spirit than a lot of teams in the country.” And while praising the Huskies’ vaunted secondary, he said, “I’ll take my guys against anyone.”
Minshew said the fierce Mississippi high-school rivalry of Brandon (his alma mater) vs. Pearl — known as the “Eat Dirt’’ rivalry — has prepared him for the Apple Cup. Asked if, as a newcomer, he’s trying to adapt the bitter feelings of his teammates, Minshew replied, “Absolutely. I kind of hate everyone we play. I guess I hate them (Washington) equally like I hate everyone else.”
The Cougars, meanwhile, don’t want to eat dirt any longer.
“We’re trying to prove we’re not anyone’s little brother,” Dale said.
The possibility does exist that the Huskies have dominated because they’re flat-out better. After last year’s rout, Leach alluded to the fact that the Cougars were very thin and had a small margin for error.
“I kind of do get a kick out of it,” he said back then. “They’ll rank them as one of the nation’s top recruiting classes and ours comes in whatever you rank that and then if we don’t beat Washington, then you’re stunned. How’d this happen?”
Whether the culprit has been talent, technique, toughness or something else is the million-dollar question. The Cougars are talking about this as one of the best teams in school history, and rightfully so. But they still need to turn things around in the Apple Cup to validate that claim.