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Apple Cups have never been bigger

With the return of veteran quarterback Luke Falk, coach Mike Leach and the Washington State Cougars were picked third in the Pac-12 North. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)
With the return of veteran quarterback Luke Falk, coach Mike Leach and the Washington State Cougars were picked third in the Pac-12 North. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – For those of you who remember a good chunk of the 108 Apple Cups preceding this one, its high stakes are a return to normalcy rather than a novelty.

There have been some consequential matchups between Washington and Washington State over the years. There have been five instances in which both teams were ranked entering the game, as will be the case for a sixth time on Saturday.

In 1981, No. 17 UW and No. 14 WSU both had Rose Bowl dreams, though the Huskies would have needed some help. The Huskies got the assistance they needed after beating the Cougars, since USC beat UCLA to send the Huskies to Pasadena.

In 1997 No. 11 WSU knocked off No. 17 UW to earn its own Rose Bowl trip, the first for the Cougars in 67 years.

The Cougars knocked off No. 5 UW in 1992 in the infamous Snow Bowl, an all-timer as far as rivalry games go.

Friday’s matchup between the No. 5 Huskies and No. 23 WSU promises to be bigger than them all, as far as the sheer magnitude of what’s on the line for both teams. The winner will be the first school from the Evergreen State to play in the Pac-12 championship.

Not only do both schools have a Rose Bowl on the line, the Huskies are playing to participate in the four-team College Football Playoff.

And really, has any Apple Cup had this much buildup? Many folks noted at the start of the season that there was a good chance the Apple Cup would have some pretty serious Pac-12 North implications. Both teams returned starting quarterbacks, talented playmakers and experienced defenses.

Then, in a two-week span the Huskies and Cougars both convincingly beat Oregon and Stanford, the only two teams to ever represent the North in the conference title bout.

California looked pretty pedestrian, as did Oregon State, and so from Week 6 on the season has built toward a winner-take-all Apple Cup.

Why, this game is so big that both head coaches did not let their players talk to the media this week, lest they found out how big it was.

“A lot of distractions,” Mike Leach said. “I don’t want them distracted want them focused on just playing, plus we have a short week so everybody’s work this week is accelerated.”

Now, the players should be exempt from certain aspects of the rivalry. Fans may cheer harder, spurred on by the carrot of a year’s worth of standing to make fun of their friends and coworkers.

The Cougars better not have any extra will to fight, however.

“If you do, you’re cheating yourself,” Leach said. “If everybody’s doing your best, you should have your best as often as possible. It’s not going to be perfect – everybody’s going to get slightly distracted – but you’re always shooting for the concentration and clarity to do your best all the time.”

Not many people know more about being in big rivalry games than WSU outside linebackers coach Roy Manning, who played and coached at Michigan. When Manning was a Wolverine, ESPN rated the UM rivalry with Ohio State the best sports rivalry in North America.

Two years after Manning graduated, OSU and UM played when ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the country.

Is the Apple Cup trending in that direction?

“Yeah, definitely,” Manning said. “At the end of the day, everybody wants to win each and every week. To have the opportunity to play your rival and have it be such a meaningful game, past that – playing for the right to keep playing – it’s huge.

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