Max Borghi tapped the table twice with his pointer fingers, adding a pair of tiny, metaphorical exclamation points.
He didn’t need to. His words spoke loudly enough.
Washington State’s do-everything, say-everything sophomore running back had just finished making a statement in last Saturday’s 54-53 comeback win over Oregon State, tallying 84 total yards and two touchdowns. A week prior, following a 49-22 win over Stanford, Borghi made a more literal statement; in the postgame press conference: He guaranteed victory over the Beavers … which, in the process, would make the Cougars bowl-eligible.
So what now?
“No score (prediction)?” a reporter asked, referencing Friday’s regular-season finale on the road against Washington.
“No score (prediction),” Borghi said, seated in front of a black Pac-12 microphone, with his biceps jutting out of a gray sleeveless hoodie and a backwards hat obscuring his brownish-blond locks.
“But I will be scoring … a lot.”
He couldn’t help himself. “OK, we’re done,” said an obviously exasperated PR staffer, as Borghi grinned, tapped the table, grabbed his water and left the room.
Most weeks, Borghi’s brashness would double as a spoiler. After all, the 5-foot-10, 197-pound sophomore has scored 14 total touchdowns in 11 games, piling up 740 rushing yards and 508 receiving yards along the way. His Cougars (6-5, 3-5) lead the Pac-12 in scoring offense (41.5 points per game), total offense (533 yards per game), yards per play (7.4), passing offense (456.7 yards per game), passing touchdowns (47) and pass attempts (55.1 per game).
But this isn’t most weeks. This is Apple Cup Week. And Washington (6-5, 3-5), we know, is not most opponents. The Huskies have won six consecutive games in the series, and nine of the last 10. In Chris Petersen’s five-plus seasons at the helm, his team has allowed an average of 13.8 points per game against Mike Leach’s Air Raid attack. In short, UW’s Death Row defense has consistently, mercilessly massacred the Cougs.
And Borghi hasn’t been the only one supplying bulletin-board material.
“We know what type of offense we’re playing,” UW defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said immediately following last season’s 28-15 win in snowy Pullman. “They do the same thing year in and year out. This is five years in a row now. So it makes it really easy to game-plan when an offense does the same thing every year.”
When asked if he’s surprised WSU never seems to make offensive adjustments, Lake added: “It does surprise me. But knowing what I read about the head football coach there, he does things a little bit different way. So hopefully he remains here for a long time. That would be awesome.”
It remains to be seen whether a UW defense that returned just two starters this season can make Borghi eat his words, or back up its coordinator’s year-old claims. Less than a week ago, Washington allowed 207 rushing yards and 5.0 yards per carry in a 20-14 loss to a Colorado team that WSU whipped 41-10 on Oct. 19. The good news? UW’s strength remains its pass defense, which ranks in the top three in the Pac-12 in yards allowed (217.5), opponent pass efficiency rating (123.71), passing touchdowns allowed (12) and opponent yards per attempt (6.7).
Still, the Huskies will have to contend with WSU redshirt-senior quarterback Anthony Gordon — who has posted a whopping 71.3% completions, 4,920 passing yards, 45 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in his only season as the Cougars’ starter. In his last two games, the prolific 6-3, 210-pounder from Pacifica, Calif., has completed 94 of 130 passes (72.3%) for 1,126 yards with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. (By comparison, UW quarterback Jacob Eason has thrown for 1,229 yards in his last five games.)
In his weekly media session on Monday, Petersen called Gordon “a heck of a player. He’s got some moxie and savvy to him, really quick release and accurate.” He said that Leach has done “a phenomenal job over there.” When asked about Borghi’s comments, he countered that “we just want to go play. But that’s rivalries. That’s kind of the beauty of some of the rivalries, and it makes it kind of fun. He’s a good player.”
So, sure: An in-state rivalry is bound to incite some playful squawking.
Just don’t expect the Huskies’ no-nonsense head coach to play along.
“I’m not good with (the trash talking). I’m into playing the game, and that’s where the talking should be,” Petersen said. “I know it irritates you guys. You just need something (to write). I can’t explain (why I don’t like trash talk). As a coach, I can’t explain it. I just don’t think a team needs any more motivation. I think both teams, certainly in rivalry games, are really motivated. There’s going to be enough fun and shenanigans and all that kind of stuff out there.”
On Friday evening, when the shenanigans subside, perhaps more will be said — but not by Petersen. The 55-year-old coach is content to squander his overripe bragging rights.
Still, he need only look around to understand the game’s significance.
“That’s the rivalry,” Petersen said, arms crossed, the diametrical opposite of tapping the table. “That’s the thing about it; there’s a lot of Cougars in this town, right? You see all the license plates and flags and all that stuff. If you win, it doesn’t really bother you. If you lose, it bothers you for a long time.”