PULLMAN – If this is still a rivalry, it sure doesn’t feel like one.
That’s what the Washington State football players who were made available to the media on Monday would have you believe, anyway. The Cougars face Idaho at 7:30 p.m. Saturday for the first time since 2007, and that absence hasn’t made WSU’s hearts grow fonder. Or otherwise.
Playing against Idaho just doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal.
“I’ve never played them,” said junior quarterback Connor Halliday, asked to describe the rivalry. “We’re excited to start a rivalry this week, but other than that it’s just kind of like the battle for the Palouse.”
Kristoff Williams, a fourth-year junior receiver, said the Cougars and Vandals have run 7-on-7 sessions against each other in offseasons past – they didn’t this summer – but that “it’s just like another game, honestly. I didn’t grow up out here, so I don’t know the Moscow-Pullman thing, if it’s a big rivalry or not.”
And here’s WSU coach Mike Leach. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to that,” Leach said. “The fans always gauge that a little more than the teams do. It’s our next opponent. We’ve got to get a week better. We’ve got to improve.”
But there was at least some measure of contention between players on these two teams during the offseason. Former WSU receiver Mansel Simmons and Idaho receiver Roman Runner were among those involved in an altercation outside a party in the early-morning hours of March 24.
Police alleged that Runner struck Simmons after Simmons charged at him, and the damage caused by that punch – facial fractures and a severe concussion – eventually ended Simmons’ football career. Whitman County Prosecutor Denis Tracy declined to file charges after determining that Runner acted in self-defense.
If the Cougars are still bothered by any part of that altercation, they’re not saying. Runner has caught two passes for eight yards in three games this season.
“We’re just worried about winning the game,” Halliday said. “That’s the only thing on our mind.”
Said defensive tackle Toni Pole: “I mean, Mansel was one of the boys. I couldn’t really tell you. I don’t really know. What we’re focusing on is to beat the mess out of them.”
Leach said, “I didn’t pay attention to it hardly when it happened. I don’t worry about that at all.”
Pole, at least, is looking forward to seeing a couple of former high school foes. He recalled attending camps with and playing against Idaho linebacker Eric Tuipuloto, who played at Serra (Calif.) High School when Pole was at James Logan High, as well as offensive lineman Sione Maile from San Leandro High School.
Pole said Tuipuloto sent him a Snapchat message on Monday morning with a photo of Idaho watching WSU game film, accompanied by a friendly message: “We’re coming after you guys.”
“I was like, ‘dang, don’t beat me up too bad,’” joked Pole, who goes 6-foot-1, 302 pounds.
WSU (2-1) is 70-17-3 all-time against Idaho (0-3).
Another late kickoff
WSU’s Sept. 28 game against Stanford at CenturyLink Field in Seattle might kickoff late, or it might kickoff later. It will air at either 7 p.m. on ESPN, or 7:30 p.m. on ESPN2. The Cougars have already played one 7:30 game, they’ll have another Saturday against Idaho, and have at least one more on the schedule – Oct. 31 against Arizona State.
Pole’s interception in overtime of last season’s Apple Cup victory will long be remembered as one of WSU’s greatest plays in the history of that rivalry.
But it’s a blessing and a curse for the affable defensive lineman. He said he hears more about how UW receiver Cody Bruns tracked him down short of the goal line than he does about how great the play was.
Pole said he’s often told he “’might need to condition harder. Maybe next time you’ll score.’ I’m reminded every day.”
So who did the ribbing?
“The better question is, who didn’t?” Pole cracked.
The Big Guy
Halliday was asked about the merits of posting lopsided victories over teams from smaller classifications, as the Cougars did last week to FCS opponent Southern Utah.
The quarterback responded: “You play whoever you play on the schedule. We don’t get to decide that. That’s the big man upstairs. That’s his decision.”
Wait – the big man upstairs? Did he mean God, or athletic director Bill Moos?
“They’re basically the same,” Halliday replied.
Normally division championships are celebrated with champagne showers in the locker room. The Spokane Indians settled for cheering and high fives on a crowded bus.
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