SEATTLE – Four years ago Washington State football coach Paul Wulff couldn’t stop Bishop Sankey from switching his pledge at the last minute to play running back for the University of Washington.
Whether or not the Cougars (6-5, 4-4 Pac-12) can stop Sankey today will likely determine whether or not they are able to beat UW (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) in the Apple Cup, and possibly if they will attend their first bowl game since 2003.
Sankey, now a junior, leads the Pac-12 with 1,575 rushing yards this season, and is on pace to break Corey Dillon’s school rushing record of 1,695. His ability to do so against his would-be former teammates will go a long way in deciding who wins the state’s regular season-ending rivalry game.
“They feed off of him. If he’s out there and he’s shredding the defense, he’s getting the looks that he needs, the offensive line is working for him, I feel the offense rallies off that,” safety Deone Bucannon said. “He’s definitely going to be a key player that we need to focus in on and stop.”
The Cougars held Sankey in check the last time the teams played, holding the running back to just 84 yards on 26 carries. That defensive performance was critical in WSU’s 31-28 win, which coach Mike Leach considers a springboard to the Cougars’ success this season.
“I thought it was important, I thought it energized our offseason and it was a win over a quality opponent,” Leach said. “I think most importantly it revealed some of the potential that we had.”
Whether WSU quarterback Connor Halliday plays mistake-free, whether UW quarterback Keith Price’s shoulder is healthy enough for him to start are other important, but perhaps not as decisive, variables.
But because UW’s offense relies on a successful run game to set up the play-action pass, this game will probably hinge on the Cougars’ ability to stop the Gonzaga Prep graduate.
WSU’s run defense hasn’t been stellar this season, ranking ninth in the Pac-12 while giving up just over 180 rushing yards per game. The past two games, however, the Cougars have held a good running back in check.
Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey leads the conference with 156 rushing yards per game, but was unable to break free against the Cougars defense after a 30-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of WSU’s 24-17 win. Even with that run, Carey’s 132 yards were the third-fewest he’s amassed in a game this season.
Utah had success with a misdirection play against the Cougars, as Kelvin York racked up 59 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. At halftime, however, WSU’s run defense adjusted, holding York to just 35 rushing yards the rest of the game.
“That play that they put in was a new play and it took us awhile to adjust to it. It was really the only run game they had in that game,” linebackers coach Ken Wilson said. “So at halftime we got at them pretty good and explained that play and did a pretty good job against the run there.”
Because of his verbal flip-flop from WSU to UW, Sankey adds intrigue to the rivalry game, which only increases given his prominent role. But with the possibility that the ballcarrier is off to the NFL after this season, the Cougars have an opportunity to send their former recruit off with a losing record in Apple Cups.
They just have to stop him, first.