The big news from the kickoff coverage day for Apple Cup week was Washington Huskies tight end Kavario Middleton revealing his team’s “plan” to score at least 50 points on Washington State.
The follow-up news to Middleton’s comments was that coach Steve Sarkisian had made the sophomore off-limits to media interviews for the remainder of the practice week.
In other words, this is shaping up as another blah prelude to another irrelevant Apple Cup, and it’s too bad. There was a time, not all that long ago, when the 102nd showdown between the schools figured to serve as a culmination of an old-fashioned intrastate spat.
Remember when Huskies athletic director Scott Woodward accused a handful of Cougars alums of interfering with the state Legislature’s debate on Bill 6116 – the bill that would’ve earmarked $150 million in public funds to help with the renovation of Husky Stadium? Remember Woodward calling out WSU president Elson Floyd and AD Jim Sterk for their failure to “show leadership or courage” in containing “that little group of Cougars”?
Remember Sterk’s retort? He termed Woodward’s remarks “so inappropriate that I laughed, basically. I could not believe these comments were coming from him.”
The feud over the stadium-renovation bill was in April. It followed a breakdown in negotiations to move the Apple Cup to Qwest Field, where the annual spectacle of a Crayola Box crowd – 30,000 fans wearing purple and gold, 30,000 fans wearing crimson and gray – might have pumped some adrenaline into a tired rivalry.
But the status-quo held sway, and we’re back at the table for another helping of same old, same old.
Because their teams have nothing riding on the outcome, Sarkisian and the Cougars’ Paul Wulff are using the Apple Cup to build toward 2010. For Washington, officially denied the possibility of a bowl bid (and, more important, the extra practices earned by a bowl bid), preparing for WSU and the season finale against California will give the coaches their last hands-on work with their young players until spring football.
For Washington State, the game Saturday will indicate how much more progress the Cougars must make before they can compete against the Pacific-10 Conference on a weekly basis.
While Sarkisian and Wulff are looking at the future, the rest of us are free, once again, to revisit the past: Hugh McElhenny’s 296-yard, five-touchdown performance at Spokane in 1950 … the 1975 Al Burleson interception return that helped turn the Huskies’ 27-14 deficit into a 28-27 victory … the 167-yard rushing effort by the Cougars’ Rueben Mayes on a subfreezing 1985 day in Seattle … the 1992 Snow Bowl at Martin Stadium, where WSU quarterback Drew Bledsoe defied the blizzard conditions to throw for 260 yards against the Rose Bowl-bound Huskies.
The history is rich. The legends are real.
But what about the here and now? What about the sense of edgy anticipation that gives a great rivalry the energy to enthrall another generation of young fans?
By suggesting the Huskies were determined to run up 50 points on the Cougars, Middleton talked his way into the coach’s doghouse. But his words weren’t malicious. He wasn’t behaving like a punk. I was standing next to him when he said what he said in front of the TV camera – I scribbled his response in my notebook, thinking he’d said nothing remotely controversial – and I was surprised to hear on the radio, a few hours later, that he had lobbed a trash-talking grenade toward WSU.
Middleton told the world that the Huskies offense plans to score 50 points. So? Isn’t that the standard plan for an offense, to score and score, and then score again? The plan rarely succeeds. The Huskies haven’t rolled up 50 on an opponent since a 53-12 victory over Utah State in 1998, but, hey, it’s been about that long since I cashed in on a trifecta. It doesn’t prevent me from trying.
Sarkisian wants his guys to be humble in public. He wants the bland to lead the bland. I understand the premise: Nobody wins a football game by talking. (OK, nobody besides the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, whose pre-Super Bowl ranting by linebacker Joey Porter got into Seahawks heads quite more tangibly than the officials’ borderline calls during the game.)
But there are 12 opponents on the Huskies’ schedule, and it’s unreasonable to demand that all 12 require the same business-as-usual approach. Put another way, one date on the schedule should be seen in a different light. One date should be preserved for a chance to have some fun, stretch a little, strut a little, push the envelope in a spirit that stokes a rivalry without belittling anybody.
Washington and Washington State first faced each other in 1901. It is not another game. It is not business as usual.
“To just think about losing this game makes me want to puke. It would absolutely disgust me,” former Washington guard Trevor Highfield said before the 1995 Apple Cup, a 33-30 thriller the Huskies won on John Wales’ last-minute field goal.
Highfield’s candor would not be appreciated this week. That kind of candor has been heard only from the UW and WSU athletic directors, seven months ago, when they grappled over a doomed state senate bill.