As the Cougars work to regroup from their defeat against Colorado, they're trying to treat the upcoming Apple Cup as just another faceless opponent

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BOULDER, Colo. – The Washington Huskies acknowledged, after they thumped Arizona State Saturday night, that this Friday’s Apple Cup matchup against their cross-state rival, Washington State, was going to be much more than just their next game.

This Apple Cup is akin to a state championship game for supremacy and bragging rights in the state of Washington for a year. But more importantly, this year, with WSU (8-3 overall) and UW (10-1) tied atop Pac-12 North standings with identical 7-1 conference records, a win in the Apple Cup gets one team a bid to the Pac-12 championship game, while the other gets to start winter break early, licking its wounds and left to wonder what could have been.

“We’ve always known,” UW defensive tackle Elijah Qualls said, when asked how aware the Huskies have been of the heightened stakes in this Apple Cup. “Especially heading into the season, we knew it was there. … it’s going to be a very, very intense game.”

The Cougars are aware of the stakes too: Beat UW and their slim Rose Bowl hopes stay alive.

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But unlike the Huskies, WSU’s players took an opposite tactic when answering questions about the Apple Cup after their loss to Colorado on Saturday afternoon.

Instead of embracing the magnitude, the Cougars, as they’ve done all year, tried to downplay their upcoming championship tilt with the Huskies as just another game.

The Cougars are trying not to peek ahead at what might happen if they win the Apple Cup. Instead, they have their sights firmly focused on the task at hand: beating their next opponent.

“We have this game coming up. We’ve got to take care of them, and what happens after that happens,” WSU running back Jamal Morrow said. “We’re focused on this game and getting ready for UW.”

Perhaps WSU’s reticence to talk about the Huskies on Saturday was due in part to how they’d just been handed their first loss in over two months.

“This is a feeling we haven’t had in a while,” linebacker Parker Henry said. “We don’t want it again. We’ve got no choice but to flush it. Because the Apple Cup is next week. Our next game.”

The Cougars team that got on a plane to return to Pullman Saturday night seemed solemn but determined. Their normally reliable offense malfunctioned against Colorado, with receivers dropping passes and quarterback Luke Falk completing only 49 percent of his passes – well under his 71.4 percent season average. Defensively, the Cougars also coughed up 603 total yards and five rushing touchdowns. So there’s plenty to work on in this short week before Friday’s game.

“As soon as the plane lands, we’ve gotta get this film done and move on and try to be the best we can next week,” Henry said Saturday.

“We need to get healthy and just learn from this,” middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer said, “We have confidence in this group of guys and I have confidence in this team. Just because of tonight, none of that is shaken. We’re gonna learn from it and bounce back and we’re gonna win this next game.”

Pelluer, who led the Cougars’ defense with 16 tackles against Colorado, was then asked whether it helped that WSU’s ‘next game’ happened to be this Apple Cup with its heightened stakes, against their arch-rival Huskies.

“Does it help that we’re in Colorado right now?” Pelluer said, blandly.

His point: The opponent is irrelevant.

All season-long, WSU coach Mike Leach has preached that the Cougars need to worry only about themselves and that they should go into every week with the mindset that they’re playing a faceless, identity-less opponent.

That doesn’t change this week for WSU.

“We take it one at a time. This happens to be our last game, and that’s that,” Pelluer said.