PULLMAN – Mike Leach expects that the Cougars will be raring to play by the time 5 p.m. rolls around on Saturday night, but the fact the opponent is wearing purple should have nothing to do with that, Washington State’s coach says.
On Monday, Leach diffused the notion that the Cougars might be pouring any extra heart or soul into their preparation for Saturday’s Apple Cup. They’ll be charged up, all right, but Leach says that has nothing to do with the pomp and circumstance of a rivalry game that doubles as a Pac-12 title play-in for the Cougars.
“For whatever reason, there’s some kind of bizarre misconception that if we’re playing one team after the next in this conference, and our conference is loaded, that all the sudden we’re somehow gauging how hard we have to work or how hard we have to think or how hard we have to practice,” Leach said Monday during his weekly news conference. “Oh, let’s see this team, well you know, 6.8 out of 10. We’ll put in that much effort and then we’ll beat them by this much. That’s not quite how it goes.”
In other words, the Cougars are self-sufficient and don’t have to find ulterior ways to motivate themselves.
Leach hasn’t necessarily gone out of his way to downplay the Apple Cup – but he isn’t one to pump up the rivalry game either. That’s never been his tact.
“You do your best all the time, so there really hasn’t been any holding back, effort, focus with regard to our team,” Leach said. “So it’s not like there’s some extra private reserve in the cellar of the bank that we are able to draw from because all the sudden, this is a game that gets a lot of attention around here.”
The Apple Cup is predictably the hottest ticket on WSU’s schedule this season, but it’s not the first time in 2017 the Cougars have played a ranked opponent with major ramifications. WSU hosted fifth-ranked USC in the fifth game of the season, then welcomed No. 21 Stanford in the home finale three weeks ago.
The Cougars were victorious in both those games – perhaps because Leach and his staff were able to successfully drive home the “treat ’em all the same” mentality to their players.
“They’ve already gotten both barrels, all cylinders, all the metaphors you want to use, all year long and no, there’s no special extra stuff,” Leach said. “We’re going to have great practices and go out there and just worry about being the best we can be.”
Pettis on WSU’s radar
The Cougars will have to be crisp on offense and defense to pull out an Apple Cup win on Saturday, but they’ll also need to be sharper than usual in the game’s third phase: special teams.
Especially when they’re punting to the Huskies.
Dante Pettis, the fast, shifty UW senior who broke the NCAA record for career punt-return touchdowns earlier this season, is naturally on the Cougars’ radar.
“He’s a real quick guy,” Leach said. “The other thing about him is he’s always fired up to get the ball, fired up to take off with it and that type of thing.”
Pettis became the record-holder when he returned his ninth punt for a touchdown two weeks ago in a 38-3 win over Oregon. The record-breaker was a 64-yard return.
The UW receiver’s ability to elude a hoard of tacklers in tight spaces is what makes him such a threat in the punt return game. In addition to the aforementioned record, Pettis also became the first player in NCAA history to return a punt for a touchdown in three consecutive games.
“I think his enthusiasm for the game, but also he’s a quick, shifty guy,” Leach said. “Of course, some of the credit also goes to those other guys on their special teams that are doing the blocking.”
The Cougars have been relatively clean in punt coverage situations this season, but kick returns have been a different story. Against Stanford, they gave up 173 yards on five kick returns, forcing Erik Powell to make two touchdown-saving tackles.
“I think punt (coverage) has been decent,” Leach said. “… We’ve gotta be better at covering kicks.”
The Cougars can rest easy knowing Pettis only returns punts.
UW’s Victor still suspended
It’s looking like the Huskies will be without a top defensive player for the 110th Apple Cup.
Azeem Victor, an all-conference linebacker who’s been a major part of UW’s resurgence on defense, was suspended indefinitely one week ago after being arrested on suspicion of a DUI.
That suspension will stretch at least another week, UW coach Chris Petersen affirmed Monday.
“Same status as last week,” Petersen said during a news conference.
Victor was a first team All-Pac-12 selection in 2016 and a 2017 preseason All-American according to a number of publications.
Turkey (and) bowl
WSU will hold a traditional Thanksgiving feast … at the local bowling alley.
As is customary, the Cougars will go to Zeppoz in Pullman for Turkey Day, then board a charter flight for Seattle the next day.
“If you want to see some of the finest bowlers on earth, go to Zeppoz on Thursday,” Leach said. “You’ll seem some big old people thundering down the bowling alley tossing balls.”
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