|Victory in Apple Cup critical for Washington State|
It has been assumed all season long that the Apple Cup was going to carry heavy meaning this year.
In fact it does. Just not for the program that was part of last season's College Football Playoff.
A spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game is on the line for No. 13 Washington State when it visits No. 17 Washington in Seattle on Saturday.
A victory over the Huskies will allow the Cougars (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) to win the Pac-12 North Division for the first time. If Washington prevails, Stanford will be the North division's representative against South winner USC.
Washington State coach Mike Leach is well aware of the ramifications but downplayed the fact that any extra motivation is at work.
"You do your best all the time, so there really hasn't been any holding back, effort, focus with regard to our team," Leach said at a press conference. "So it's not like there's some extra private reserve in the cellar of the bank that we are able to draw from because all the sudden, this is a game that gets a lot of attention around here."
The Huskies (9-2, 6-2) were the team that was supposed to be the big player in the North. Losses to Arizona State and Stanford took care of their title aspirations -- both in the Pac-12 and in terms of returning to the CFP.
That has led to the Huskies' season to be viewed as mildly disappointing and that doesn't sit well with Washington coach Chris Petersen.
"People don't know how difficult 9-2 is. They don't know. It is hard," Petersen said at a press conference. "I don't know if it's the College Football Playoffs, but it's just expectations. That's one of the hard things in this whole thing is just managing expectations.
"I say it a million times: Nobody has higher expectations for us than us."
The Huskies have controlled the Apple Cup of late with seven victories in the past eight meetings.
And spoiling Washington State's title-game hopes and being able to record a second straight 10-win season sounds good to Washington junior quarterback Jake Browning.
"Rivalry games are huge and we always want to beat WSU," Browning said. "Having a 10-win season is pretty cool. I don't care what game we're playing for, I want to win regardless."
Browning became Washington's career leader with 77 touchdown passes when he tossed two in last Saturday's 33-30 win over Utah, but his numbers -- 2,451 yards, 18 touchdowns, five interceptions -- pale in comparison to those of counterpart Luke Falk.
The Washington State gunslinger has passed for 3,224 yards and 29 touchdowns against 10 interceptions this season and holds school and Pac-12 records for career passing yardage (14,117) and passing touchdowns (118).
Falk, a senior, also has 29 300-yard passing performances -- including topping 400 on 11 occasions -- and 23 games of three or more touchdowns passes.
"Of course Luke Falk has been in that system forever," Petersen said. "I mean, is he ever going to graduate? He's been there forever. He knows that system inside and out.
"I think he looks better. He looks more comfortable. He has a great feel for when the rush is coming, he'll get it out and when it's not, he'll hang onto the ball and let his guys work. There's a reason that they are where they are right now and what they're playing for."
Junior receiver Tavares Martin Jr. (65 receptions for 759 yards and nine touchdowns), sophomore running back James Williams (59 for 383 with three scores) and sophomore wideout Isaiah Johnson-Mack (57 for 530, five TDs) all have caught more than 50 passes for an attack averaging 33 points per game.
Reaching their average could be challenging for the Cougars as the Huskies have been sturdy on the defensive side all season.
Washington ranks fourth nationally in total defense (271.3 yards per game), fifth in scoring defense (14.5) and eighth in passing defense (168.4). The Huskies' secondary was bolstered by the return of redshirt freshman cornerback Brandon Murphy for the Utah game after he missed the previous seven contests with a broken foot.
The Cougars can also play a little defense as they rank 11th nationally by giving up 303.8 yards per game. Washington State ranks second in the country with 94 tackles for losses.
Standout defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa has racked up 21.5 of those stops behind the line, third-best in the country. The junior has 41 tackles and 9.5 sacks as the headliner of the unit.
The Huskies also have an elite player to boast about in senior Dante Pettis, who has returned four punts for touchdowns this season and holds the NCAA career mark of nine.
"He's a real quick guy," Leach said. "The other thing about him is he's always fired up to get the ball, fired up to take off with it and that type of thing."
The first Apple Cup was played in 1900 -- and finished in a 5-5 tie.