The last two years Washington State entered their rivalry game with UW with a chance to go to the Pac-12 championship, only to have the Huskies dash those hopes in both dramatic (2018's unexpected Snow Bowl in Pullman) and undramatic fashion (a 41-14 trouncing in Seattle in 2017).
This year's 112th edition of the Apple Cup will have to rely on the rivalry to generate excitement, because honestly there's not a lot either team is playing for this time around. Sure, a win or loss might upgrade or downgrade the quality of bowl game they land in, but we might just be talking about whether you prefer Las Vegas or El Paso in December (Vegas, the answer is always Vegas). For the first time since 2014, neither team is ranked in the national polls, and they're too far behind Oregon in the Pac-12 North Division standings to make a win or loss matter. They are, like much of the Pac-12 as a whole, utterly mediocre.
That's not a happy place to be for teams that not long ago were contending for a national championship (that would be UW) or just last year rode a wave of good vibes and fake mustaches, courtesy of one-and-done quarterback Gardner Minshew, to one of the best seasons in school history and an Alamo Bowl win (that would be WSU).
To some degree, it's not shocking both the Cougs and Huskies are having a down year in 2019. In Seattle, they had to replace four-year starting quarterback Jake Browning, and all the fans who complained about him for much of his career found out this season how hard it is to plug in a new QB and just keep rolling along. Yes, Minshew did it at WSU last year, but he's obviously a freak with magical powers in that mustache and is currently working in the NFL. UW turned to Georgia transfer Jacob Eason, a guy with all the attributes you could want in a quarterback. And he's been... OK.
The Cougs likewise had to replace Minshew, and to do that they tapped a guy who's been in Pullman and coach Mike Leach's "Air Raid" system for four years, and was Minshew's backup a year ago. All Anthony Gordon has done was go completely apeshit on the WSU record books. He already broke the Cougs' single-season record for touchdown passes (held jointly by his two predecessors, Minshew and Luke Falk). He leads the entire country in passing yards and touchdowns, and he's on several end-of-season award lists. Why doesn't Anthony Gordon get the love Minshew enjoyed a year ago? I blame the lack of stylish facial hair.
WSU's 2019 woes certainly can't be blamed on Gordon. And sophomore running back Max Borghi, despite being arguably underused, is a top-10 back in the conference. If anything, it's been defensive lapses against UCLA (when the Cougs gave up 50 second-half points to lose 67-63), Utah, Arizona State, Oregon and Cal — all of whom scored more than 30 points on the Cougs. WSU's defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys quit shortly after that UCLA debacle, and in the first season of a new three-year contract reportedly worth about $650,000 annually, so he must have really wanted out.
Maybe he'd been the target of some of coach Mike Leach's barbs typically reserved for his "student-athletes." The oh-so-charming Leach called his players "fat, dumb, happy and entitled" after losing to Utah. That's enough to bum anyone out, even a guy like Claeys with a couple million bucks waiting in his contract.
If there's one reason to watch this year's Apple Cup, it might be to see if Leach can finally get the best of one of Peterson's teams. UW is 5-0 in the Apple Cup since Peterson took over for Steve Sarkisian, and last year's 13-point win was the closest game of the bunch. UW might be down, but they have a quarterback who's likely to get a look in the pros (and probably pretty soon), the third-best defense in the conference and a great running back in Salvon Ahmed.
Next season, Leach will again be looking for a new quarterback, will likely be looking for a new defensive coordinator, and will hope to get the Cougs back in contention for a conference title. Peterson will likely have the Huskies back in fighting form, he's too good a coach not to. Beating UW this year, when the national spotlight won't be anywhere close to the game, might be Leach's best shot to finally win an Apple Cup against his cross-state nemesis.
But I'm a betting man, and I wouldn't bet on it. ♦
WSU vs. UW • Fri, Nov. 29 at 1 pm • Husky Stadium, Seattle • Airing on Fox