We’re almost here.
Not just to another Apple Cup (pictured is the UW celebration after winning the 2009 version, 30-0), but to the day that will finally give some real definition to this Husky season.
As I’m sure everyone reading this knows, win tomorrow and the Huskies are in a bowl game. Lose, and they finish with the same record as a year ago — unquestionably a disappointment in the eyes of most given the return of Jake Locker.
Some may even view the season as something of a disappointment at 6-6.
But getting to a bowl game, no matter the route, is a significant tangible step on the road back to the top.
I’m not sure it will have a huge impact on recruiting — 70 of 120 teams will go to bowls this year and obviously, it’s better being one of the 70 instead of the 50, but I doubt it will really sway all that many recruits. (Next year’s class is when it could have more of an impact, though again, so many teams go to bowls anymore that I don’t know how great a selling point that is in and of itself other than as a baromer of progress).
And while the 15 extra practices will be nice, I’m not sure they are quite the program maker they are sometimes portrayed — I guess if going to a bowl was the complete be-all and end-all of success of program that the teams that go to bowls would never not go to them again.
But still, it’s meaningful, especially since circumstance will send UW to a pretty high profile game in either the Alamo or the Holiday.
So, a lot is on the line Saturday in Pullman.
The question is whether the Huskies can handle it.
Early in the year, some around the program thought the team didn’t play as well in high-pressure situations. Maybe, though, UW just mostly was playing teams it’s not as good as in many of those losses.
That won’t be the case Saturday as the Huskies have the advantage over the Cougars in almost every area.
When I broke the teams down by position for our preview package in Saturday’s paper, here’s what I wrote (and this is the unedited version):
QB — Even. Normally, this would be a check for the Huskies. But UW QB Jake Locker has struggled with the affects of a broken rib and hasn’t put up the numbers expected. If healthy, however, don’t be surprised if he has a big day. WSU’s Jeff Tuel is rapidly improving, showing increased mobility along with a good arm.
RB — UW. Chris Polk will be the best running back on the field, though teammate Jesse Callier won’t be far behind. UW may feed them all day. WSU is led by senior James Montgomery, who was a Husky commit for a while before going to Cal, then transferring to WSU.
OL — UW. Huskies may have to make a shift yet again if LT Senio Kelemete — the starter at that spot all season — can’t play. But while UW’s line hasn’t been great, WSU’s has been worse with the Cougars unable to run well and allowing a Pac-10-high 46 sacks, second-most in the nation.
WR — WSU. A tough call here as the Huskies have some solid receivers, notably Jermaine Kearse, among the Pac-10 leaders. But UW has had some injuries and issues with dropped passes. And this is the strength of WSU’s team led by junior Jared Karstetter and freshman Marquess Wilson, each among the top 10 WRs in the conference.
DL — UW. This has been a rapidly improving area for the Huskies the past few weeks with junior Alameda Ta’amu getting better inside and true freshman Hau’oli Jamora providing a good rush at end. WSU has a solid player in end Travis Long, who has five sacks. But UW has more balance and depth.
LB — UW. This is the strength of UW’s defense led by standout senior Mason Foster and steady Victor Aiyewa and Cort Dennison. WSU has a rising star in true frosh C.J. Mizell in the middle but UW has the overall edge.
DB — UW. Huskies have settled on a set four in the secondary and the continuity has begun to pay off with better play of late — UW has four of its 10 interceptions in the last two games, two by cornerback Quinton Richardson. Cougs are young, starting two freshmen and a sophomore and are allowing foes to complete 66.4 percent of passes.
ST — WSU. Give the Cougars a slight edge in the special teams. UW’s much-maligned coverage units have gotten better of late. But the return games have been none-existent and WSU has the statistical edge in every return and coverage area. WSU also has a solid punter in Reid Forrest while UW’s Kiel Rasp is coming off a back injury. UW has the edge at PK with Erik Folk.
The caveats in any assessment of the Apple Cups are the home field and the rivalry itself. The former favors the Cougars this year, though judging by the sun peering through the window as I type this, I’m not sure the weather is going to be a big factor. They’re clearing off the field (supposedly 75 truckloads of snow this week have been removed from the turf) and it should be playable enough on Saturday barring a storm during the game.
Heck, snow might favor UW anyway since what the Huskies ought to do is hand the ball to Polk 25 times or so and have Locker run it 12-14 times or so, a strategy that might even work better in more a more inclement climate.
As for the rivalry aspect, certainly there have been a few upsets in the history of the series, but probably not as many as you’d think. Everbody talks about 1982 because it’s the one really big upset in the series. There are all kinds of years no one talks about because the better team simply won the game.
And ultimately, the Huskies appear to be the better team, have all the motivation in the world, and are more than healthy enough — Locker may be the healthiest he’s been since before being hurt, and I would imagne the wraps will be off tomorrow and he’ll be free to run as he hasn’t since the USC game.
WSU was playing well when it last played, and it has a passing game to make things dicey all day for the Huskies. Containing Tuel will be a key, as will converting in the red zone and not turning the ball over (the one thing WSU is good at defensively is forcing turnovers).
But this is a game where the Huskies, with edges on both lines, simply should get it done. So call it, Washington 24, Washington State 13.