It’s finally here.
It was suspected by many, for sure, before this season even began, that this year’s Apple Cup game between the Washington Huskies and Washington State Cougars might fetch more than just bragging rights for the winner.
Those premonitions were supported by reality by midseason. The Huskies throttled Stanford, then Oregon. The Cougars throttled Oregon, then Stanford. And so the collision course for the Pac-12 North championship was set.
Now, here it is, UW and WSU carrying identical, 7-1 conference records into Friday’s 12:30 p.m. showdown on the Palouse. The winner will play in the following Friday’s Pac-12 championship game. The loser will settle for something lesser come bowl season.
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“Obviously, it’s a big game,” UW quarterback Jake Browning said. “They’re going to be ready, we’re going to be ready, and we’re going to go at it. It’s kind of what you want.”
This is the first time since 1981 that both UW and WSU will enter the Apple Cup game with an opportunity to play for a Rose Bowl bid.
Back then, of course, there was no Pac-10 championship game, so the first-place team at the end of the regular season automatically advanced to the Rose Bowl. But times have changed, and in the current system, these are as high as the stakes can get.
The Huskies (10-1) have aspirations beyond Pasadena. They are No. 5 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, and it seems they would have a decent chance of inclusion in the top four if they could win Friday and defeat either Colorado or USC in the Pac-12 championship game.
The Cougars (8-3) are trying to best their 2015 record of 9-4, and have a chance to play in their first Rose Bowl since the 2002 season.
WSU coach Mike Leach typically downplays the Apple Cup rivalry, suggesting it’s only important because, simply, it is the next game on the schedule. UW coach Chris Petersen approaches the game similarly, though acknowledges how fun it must be for everyone outside the teams’ respective locker rooms.
“It’ll be exciting,” Petersen said. “They get the rivalry. They get that we’re playing a heck of a team in a really hostile situation. I think this is different than most places going.”
Martin Stadium — capacity 35,117 — has been sold out for months. The Cougars haven’t lost at home since a 45-42 defeat to Eastern Washington in their season opener Sept. 3.
The Huskies, meanwhile, are undefeated in four road games this season. The only one of those victories that came against a team with a winning record was a 31-24 triumph at No. 22 Utah in late October.
UW won in its last trip to Pullman, a 31-13 victory in subfreezing temperatures in 2014.
“You’ve just got to be able to handle crowd noise and momentum swings, and all that stuff goes against you, and you’ve got to stay strong and just keep executing,” Petersen said. “It sounds easy, can be tougher to do, but the kids have done a good job with it, obviously.”