A GRIP ON SPORTS
It may be Black Friday in the retail world, but around the Northwest today is known for just one thing. Read on.
• OK, a couple of things (after all, the 17th-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs are playing basketball this evening). But the No. 1 event on the agenda today begins at 12:30 this afternoon in Pullman. The Apple Cup. The showdown between bowl-bound Washington and also-ran Washington State. What's going to happen? Well, a couple of weeks ago I felt the Cougars would put a complete game together before the end of the season. I guess I can't back pedal from that now and, considering the horrendous result in Tempe last week, today would have to be the day, right? So I'll say yes, with a caveat. A big caveat. As in a 6-foot-4, 245-pound caveat. Yes, I believe the Cougars will play well offensively today. And the special teams will – have to? – do better than they have the past couple weeks. But this game will be won or lost on the defensive end. And the WSU defense will be missing its best player, not to mention its spiritual leader. Travis Long, the senior from Spokane's Gonzaga Prep, should be making his 48th consecutive start for the Cougars today – yes, that would be every college game he's been around for – but more than likely he won't. Long suffered an undisclosed knee injury last week against ASU and will probably be limited to cheering his teammates on from the sidelines. And if there is another player the Cougars could miss more than Long, I can't think of him. It's not just Long's abilities on the field – he leads WSU in sacks (9.5), tackles for loss (13) and pass breakups (4), a statistical trifecta I bet no one else in the nation can claim – but it's also his leadership before, during and after the game. Before, Long is a guy the opponents have to game plan for, a rare commodity in Pullman the past few years. During, Long keeps teammates focused, not only with words but deeds. And after? If you don't think he has a strong locker room presence, you don't know much about the WSU football program. He will be missed. And his absence is the main reason I'm picking Washington, 44-17.
• Speaking of Long, his injury points out a flaw in Mike Leach's injury and media policies. Or at the least, his foolish consistency in such matters. This is the final game of the season, win or lose. It also would have been the final game of Long's college career, one of the most praiseworthy careers in WSU's history, considering the circumstances surrounding it. Travis Long picked Washington State because he wanted to help build something. He bought into Paul Wulff's vision of long-term success and sacrificed his body trying to make that happen. Now Wulff is gone and another vision is its place. Still, Long persevered, trying to bring Leach's vision to fruition. He should be feted for that and a million other little things. But it didn't happen this week in the manner Long deserved. His teammates should have been able to speak of his courage, his example, his fun-loving nature. They should have been able to tell Cougar Nation what his injury means, how much they'll miss him, how they need to rally around him today. Travis Long deserved to have such testimonials plastered across newspapers and computers all over the state. He earned that with his sweat, the only currency that really means anything on a football field. But there is a policy in place that prohibits any talk of injuries and severely limits interaction with the players. They are in place, we are told, to help ensure on-field success. To limit distractions. I submit hewing rigidly to the policies this week had the opposite effect. If the players had a chance to speak about Long and his contributions, it not only would have been cathartic, but would have made them publicly accountable. It is one thing to say to yourself you're going to go out and give maximum effort for Travis; it's another to put it out there in a public forum. Not only would have allowing a break from the routine had served the purpose of honoring a true warrior, a player you want all future Cougars to emulate, it probably would have helped WSU today. And, as we've been told all along, that's why every rule is in place.
• Washington State: As you could expect, the paper this morning is full of Apple Cup items. We'll start with Christian Caple's work, including this feature about Long which, I'm sure even Christian would admit, is not nearly as in-depth as Long (No. 89) deserves. Christian also has this short on the seniors playing their last game today (though one of them, Taylor Meighen, hasn't been around for a while and, according to Cougfan, wasn't at practice this week). He also has his two-minute drill and his morning post, along with UW beat writer Bob Condotta's responses to five questions. Christian returned the favor in the Times. … John Blanchette has his thoughts on today's Apple Cup.
• Gonzaga: The Zags had to play a physical, low-possession, tough game last night in Orlando, and did just fine. It was their least imposing physical specimen, David Stockton, who stepped up in the second half to lead them to a 57-49 win over Clemson. Jim Meehan was in Florida and has this story. The Zags meet Oklahoma in the tournament semifinals this afternoon. … The Zag women claimed third place in their Mexico tournament with an easy win over Winthrop.
• Idaho: Failure in the WAC usually results in a coach being fired (see Robb Akey). But success also can be a problem for a school. For example, at San Jose State, their coach is wanted by a lot of schools.
• Seahawks: The long trip to Miami awaits, though it's not a given every key Seahawk will be able to play after getting there. … The Dolphins bid for Matt Flynn's services, but he's fine where he is. … The Hawks are making use of all of Russell Wilson's abilities.
• That's all for now. We're headed down to Pullman where we'll watch the game and then take your phone calls for the final time this season. Tune into our postgame show with Dennis Patchin starting about an hour after the game ends. Until then …