History shows that the Apple Cup doesn’t need two quality teams (or even one, for that matter) to produce epic games. Part of the event’s lore — as with all rivalry games — is when the more downtrodden of the two teams rises up when least expected to wreak havoc on the other’s sky-high aspirations.
Think 1982, when a 2-7-1 Washington State squad stunned 9-1 Washington, denying the Huskies a third consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl. Or 2003, when a 5-6 Husky team coming off a 54-7 loss to Cal shocked the 9-2, eighth-ranked Cougars 27-19 to end their Rose Bowl hopes.
Other examples abound, with satisfying and agonizing memories on each side, depending on the year. Yet I’d maintain that the very best Apple Cups are those in which both teams are good and have a considerable amount to play for beyond the annual standards, such as pride and statewide bragging rights.
That’s why this year’s version of the Apple Cup, set for the chilly climes of the Palouse on Saturday evening, is so appealing. Washington and Washington State have each shined under coaches in their first full season, both of whom entered it with many questions to answer. And both have done so affirmatively, Washington bringing a 9-2 record into the game while Washington State is 7-4. The Huskies have a five-game winning streak, and the Cougars have won three in a row. Both are playing for tangible rewards beyond the emotional — a (still-longshot) berth in the Pac-12 title game or a possible New Year’s Six bowl for the Huskies, and a higher-caliber bowl in WSU’s case.
There are other aspects to spice up this game, such as the chance of frigid, snowy conditions in Pullman. Nothing like a little inclement weather to produce Chaos Ball, such as the legendary Snow Bowl in Pullman in 1992, when WSU knocked off the defending national champion Huskies 42-23. The image of Cougars receiver Philip Bobo sliding into a snowbank in the west end zone while catching a 44-yard touchdown pass from Drew Bledsoe is indelible. So are the images of snow flurries at Martin Stadium as recently as 2018 when No. 16 UW dominated No. 8 Washington State 28-15 en route to the Rose Bowl.
The other element that ratchets up the level of hype considerably Saturday is that of revenge, always a welcome wrinkle in the Apple Cup. It’s not just that the Cougars defeated Washington 40-13 last year — at Husky Stadium, no less — marking the largest margin of victory for WSU in the series annals. Thus ended, in spectacular fashion, Washington’s seven-game Apple Cup win streak, in which it had won by an average margin of 22.7 points.
It’s the blistering memory of the Cougars fans celebrating on their turf, and particularly of since-departed quarterback Jayden de Laura planting the Crimson flag on the Washington logo, that’s driving the Huskies. The image has been omnipresent in their preparation this week.
“I’m taking it personal, the whole slamming the flag down on our logo,” Washington receiver Jalen McMillan said Tuesday. “We don’t take that lightly. We’re playing it all over the weight room. Wherever you walk in that building, you’re going to see that image. So we’re taking it personally.”
Michael Penix Jr., the Huskies’ superb quarterback who has fueled their breakthrough season, was in West Lafayette, Indiana, that weekend, watching injured from the sideline as his Indiana squad lost the Old Oaken Bucket to Purdue, 44-7. But he has taken on his new teammates’ indignation by osmosis.
“For the people that were here last year, I understand how they felt with the whole flag-planting thing,” he said. “Obviously, it was some disrespect, so however my brothers feel, I’m going to feel the same way, because I’m behind them. I’m a Dawg now, so however they feel, I’m going to feel, and we know what we got to do this week to make sure we won’t have that feeling again.”
DeBoer has also taken up the cause despite the fact he wasn’t hired to replace Jimmy Lake until a few days after the 2021 Apple Cup. Husky linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio on Tuesday recalled that DeBoer didn’t wait long after taking the job to prioritize beating Washington State.
“What I remember was at one of his first meetings, he just said that he saw the game. And one of his priorities was that, ‘We gotta get that back,’ ” Ulofoshio said. “That was, like, priority No. 1 — not national championships, not any of that. The Apple Cup is the most important game in Washington. And we’ve got to get it back.”
All the elements are there for a classic Saturday. With Washington a mere two-point favorite, it won’t be a massive upset no matter what happens. But it will be massively satisfying for the winner.
The Apple Cup
When/where: 7:30 p.m. Saturday/Martin Stadium, Pullman.
TV/radio: ESPN/KJR-FM (93.3), Seattle Sports 710 AM.