Nov. 30, 2010
by Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - There is excitement building around UW over the Huskies being one win away from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2002.
But the Dawgs themselves are chewing on this first: If they don't focus solely on Saturday's 103rd Apple Cup this week, all that will be left to taste is the bile of opportunity lost.
Huskies linebacker Cort Dennison put it best, and most simply: "If you think about the bowl game, you will get beat - and there will be no bowl game."
Washington (5-6, 4-4 Pac-10) must defeat Washington State (2-9, 1-7) on its archrival's icy home field in Pullman on Saturday beginning at 4 p.m. The Huskies know the Cougars, who routed Oregon State on the road in their last game, would make their season by derailing Washington's postseason's trip. And that is keeping the Huskies on task.
First things first.
"Obviously, we'd all like to get to a bowl game," said Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, who is in Year Two of rebuilding the program that was winless two seasons ago. "But more than that, this week is playing the Apple Cup. And I don't want to lose sight of that.
"I don't want to say we're playing Washington State to get to a bowl game. We're playing Washington State for the Apple Cup, for everything that households get divided across the state of Washington for."
The native of Southern California said last season, when Washington routed WSU in Husky Stadium 30-0 for the first Apple Cup shutout since 1964, he jumped into this rivalry "feet first."
Now and the Huskies will experience the rest of the rivalry's peculiarities: the snow and cold of Pullman, and the expectation of the unexpected in this often wild series that dates to a 5-5 tie in Seattle in 1900.
"It's playing your rival in what could be a setting that is extremely unique with the weather and all the things that could go into this thing," Sarkisian said. "Let's make sure we don't miss this opportunity, what this experience is going to be like. If we're fortunate enough to win the game, then we'll go celebrate being in a bowl game. But until then, we'll focus on playing our rival in a great setting."
That setting will be wintry for the first Apple Cup ever played in December, though perhaps not as much as the famous "Snow Bowl" in 1992 at WSU.
There is already snow piled up in Pullman from last weekend, with more expected on Tuesday and Wednesday. And with temperatures in the low 30s and below expected through Saturday's game, that snow isn't going anywhere soon.
Washington has 51 natives of Southern California and Hawaii on their roster. But Sarkisian and his coaching staff also predominantly from California were looking ahead to the Apple Cup last week before the Huskies' 16-13 win at Cal. They had the team practicing outside in Husky Stadium in Nov. 22's blowing snow and 25-degree temperatures as it got dark. Washington's Dempsey Indoor practice facility stood, teasing, about a long corner route beyond the east end zone.
Many Huskies said it was the first time they had felt snow. Younger players, who have never been to Pullman let alone in December, waged a snowball fight at midfield during the rare practice.
Asked if that session in the unusual Seattle snow acclimated the Dawgs for Pullman, where temperatures should be in the 20s by game's end, Sarkisian said Monday: "That was the intent of it, why we went outside that day last week. Obviously it wasn't going to snow at Cal -- although it hailed.
"We didn't know exactly what the weather would be like this week so we tried to take advantage of that last week. We'll be outside all this week (too)."
Washington has two advantages that may render Saturday's weather at Martin Stadium moot: Jake Locker's upbringing, and a resurgent running game.
Locker was born and raised in Ferndale, Wash., near the Canadian border. Snow, rain, hail, cold, football, baseball - he's played everything, in everything, in our state. So nothing the senior quarterback might find Saturday in his 39th and final regular-season start of his UW career will faze him.
"That's not a big deal," Locker said. "I've grown up here, practiced a whole bunch in high school when I was young, and played in that weather. I'm not really worried about it."
Locker's still-broken rib has gotten a break thanks to Chris Polk in the last two games. Polk, who ran for the season-saving touchdown on the final play last weekend at Cal, has 224 yards rushing in the last two weeks. That includes a career high of 138 yards in the win over UCLA. The sophomore plowhorse needs 46 yards Saturday to reach 1,000 yards rushing for the second consecutive season.
Washington State is last in the Pac-10 in rushing defense, allowing an average of 211.6 yards per game. And Sarkisian keeps saying the recipe to winning late in the season is sticking with a running game.
All that in this meaning-packed Apple Cup takes precedence for UW over being on the cusp of that long-sought bowl bid.
"I think it's great, even beyond our program, just for the state of Washington," Sarkisian said. "I think it's great for Washington State that there's really something to rally behind, more than just the bragging rights of it.
"That's what makes rivalries special. That's what makes college football special -- the pageantry, everything that leads up to these rivalry games that really mean something."