The usual 25 minutes of unabated optimism that comes from Washington Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian during his Monday meeting with the press corps went as smoothly as a newly-ironed silk shirt.
It's Apple Cup week. Of course, questions about the rivalry game with Washington State arose. Some were honest. Others were leading. Either way, Sarkisian was prepared like any old ex-quarterback with brain power.
It's his first taste of the sometimes-bitter rivalry, although lately, both programs had been behaving like pussycats.
Sarkisian said the Apple Cup was something to behold and appreciate. "Once you get the taste of it one time around, you understand the emotions involved, the intensity involved in it," he said.
He admitted he'd been well-schooled about the rivalry's specifics, from both UW alumni and administrators, and a guy on his own staff – former WSU linebacker Johnny Nansen, now the UW recruiting coordinator.
"It doesn't take long to realize the importance of this game from a standpoint of what it means to this state, to this community," said the first-year UW coach who grew up in California. "It's exciting. I'm glad, for me, to have the first one here at Husky Stadium, I'm glad we get to experience it that way."
Sarkisian was later asked if he would stand for trash-talking this week. No, he emphatically said.
"That's who we are the entire year. I don't know what you get out of it. I don't know where you gain. I think the guys that like to do that are looking for attention, whether it's here or anywhere else," Sarkisian said. "I like to think that we put our helmets on, we put our uniforms on and we talk with the way we play. It's not about what you say. It's what you do."
Case closed, or so Sarkisian thought as he exited the Founders Club, and made his way back to the football office, leaving three of the more bland talkers, including defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and tight end Kavario Middleton, to talk to the media.
I talked to Middleton first. He said growing up, he didn't pay much attention to the college game, admitting "I wasn't a big UW fan … I was more of a professional-team watcher."
He echoed his coach's sentiments that rivalry games are much more difficult to lose than another Pacific-10 Conference contest, because "you want to perform so well" in front of people who know you best.
Our conversation was brief, as he went on to talk to other reporters, and I went on to talk to other players.
Middleton said similar things to other reporters.
And then when the television camera intervened, he couldn't help himself.
To Aaron Levine, the sports anchor at KCPQ, when asked about the near four-touchdown point spread in the UW's favor, Middleton said, "I’m not really into any of that stuff. But we plan on scoring 50 (points). We’re ready to go."
He later told another reporter than the UW planned on keeping the Cougars down in their rightful place – in the bottom of the Pacific-10 Conference.
Needless to say, these words – and video footage – did not escape Sarkisian's attention. At practice Monday, he was irritated, and told UW sports information director Richard Kilwien that the tight end was "off limits" to the media the rest of the week.
For spicing up a mundane rivalry. Ouch!
• Sounds like there's a better chance defensive tackle Cameron Elisara (neck stinger) will return Saturday for the 3:30 p.m. Apple Cup game than linebacker E.J. Savannah (broken left wrist). For starters, Elisara practiced in contact drills Monday, and Savannah was nowhere to be found.
Sarkisian said both players will be re-evaulated later this week, and could be cleared by doctors.
• Free safeties Jason Wells (left foot) and Nate Fellner (right biceps) were both full participants, and shared first-team repetitions Monday. Wells appears likely to start ahead of Fellner.
• Running back Chris Polk (right shoulder) has a little soreness, but ran through the entire practice Monday wearing the non-contact red jersey.
• Although right cornerback Adam Long took all the snaps with the No. 1 defense during the team period Monday, Anthony Boyles, who converted from receiver a month ago, did run with the first unit in 7-on-7 drills.
• Strong safety Nate Williams limped over to the sideline briefly with a right ankle tweak. He was taped up and continued on. Backup safety Alvin Logan also dinged up his right leg near the end of practice.
• Sarkisian noted last week's bye period was a good replacement for the 15 practices the team will miss out on for not making a bowl game.
"It was important to get the Tim Tuckers, the Marlion Barnetts, the Jordan Wallaces, the Keith Prices … all the reps we can get to get their stuff on film so we know what we need to work on heading into the off-season and into spring ball to get them more prepared and in a position to battle and compete and help us win," Sarkisian said.
• Divided loyalties? It will be on at the Locker household this week since Jake is the quarterback at UW, and Casey Locker is a walk-on at WSU.
“I think it will be the most evident with my grandma and grandpa. My grandma, one of her friends made her a scarf with half of it red and gray and the other half purple and gold, so she plans on wearing that, I think my grandpa’s got a hat that’s half-and-half," Jake Locker said. "For them I think it’s a little different, I’m sure for Casey’s family, my aunt and uncle will be in their Cougar stuff, I know my parents will be in their Husky stuff. It’s not something that’s causing problems or anything but I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun Saturday."
• Has Sarkisian accepted the fact it's his brethren to the south – Oregon and Oregon State – that will duke it out for the right to play in the Rose Bowl?
He has to.
You know … I have. They are two programs that are playing well and playing well in all three phases. Doing a nice job on offense, on defense, on special teams. They've got nice playmakers that have made plays for them at critical moments. Two very good coaching staffs. So I've accepted that," Sarkisian said.
"But I've also looked at the fact that, 'Man, those are two programs that however many years ago everyone said they was no way those two teams could play for the Rose Bowl.' So to me it tells me that this conference, there is some transition occurring, and as an up and coming program we can be part of that transition and hopefully we will get part of that mix and playing for that Rose Bowl. That things aren't set in stone and aren't the same year in and year out."
• The original plan was that Sally Sarkisian – Steve's mother – would come up Saturday for the Apple Cup to watch her son coach in person for the first time.
Not so now.
"She's going to stay home (in Torrance, Calif.). My brother and the family is coming up from Cleveland for Thanksgiving," he said. "She's not going to see a game in person this year."
Speaking of Thanksgiving, both teams will hold morning practices – WSU at 10, and the UW at 11:15.
Here's some stuff sent over from News Tribune correspondent Howie Stalwick from Pullman:
• The injury-ravaged Cougars received some welcome news Monday when quarterback Jeff Tuel and safety Chima Nwachukwu returned to practice. Both have been starters. Tuel has missed two games with a knee injury, and Nwachukwu has been sidelined the past three games with a sprained ankle. Coach Paul Wulff continues to list both players as questionable. Asked if Tuel would start if he plays, Wulff said, “Probably not. At this point, Kevin Lopina would be the starter.”
• Wulff added a name to Washington State’s lengthy injury list when he revealed the starting offensive guard B.J. Guerra suffered a “slight” concussion Saturday against Oregon State. Guerra did not practice Monday, but Wulff hopes Guerra will be cleared in time to play at Washington.
• On Sunday, Wulff seemed resigned to the fact that starting cornerback Brandon Jones would miss the Apple Cup due to the back injury he suffered Saturday. However, Jones seemed to be moving well at practice Monday (although he did not participate in any drills), and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball said Jones “might be able to come back.”
• The Cougars, whose base defense is a 4-3 alignment, practiced Monday with the three-man front they used against Oregon State due to the lack of healthy bodies. WSU’s starting defensive line currently consists of true freshman end Travis Long, redshirt freshman nose guard Anthony Laurenzi and junior end Casey Hamlett, a transfer from NCAA Division II Western Washington.
• The WSU Ticket Office said nearly 800 of the 4,800 tickets allotted to the Cougars had to be returned to Washington. As of Monday afternoon, the Huskies said approximately 66,500 tickets had been sold for the game. Husky Stadium seats 72,500.