PULLMAN – It’s not what a Washington State fan wants to hear, especially considering how the past four of these have gone, but Mike Leach is as honest as they come and even if it meant sending shivers down the spine of any Cougar supporter listening, the coach was going to stick to the script.
“When you first look at Washington, what stands out?” Leach was asked Monday in a news conference – the coach’s first media availability of Apple Cup week.
“It’s almost stereotypical, they’re big and physical,” Leach said. “What stands out? They’re like they are every year.”
Later on in the week, Leach doubled down on that take, telling broadcaster Matt Chazanow on the weekly coach’s show, “It’s almost like it’s getting awfully repetitive because they’re physical, they’re big … it’s kind of more of the same.”
One of these times the Cougars might actually catch a break against their rivals from the other side of the Evergreen State, but that isn’t happening this year and it probably isn’t happening at any point as long as Chris Petersen is calling the shots for the Washington Huskies.
For now, Petersen’s the one in charge, which means the 16th-ranked Huskies (8-3, 6-2) will be well-prepared, they’ll be dialed in and they’ll come out with their patented aggression for the 111th Apple Cup Friday night at Martin Stadium (5:30 p.m., Fox 28) against the Cougars (10-1, 7-1).
WSU is favored to win by 2 ½ points, which would not only end a five-year dry spell against UW, but assure the Cougars of a spot in the Pac-12 Championship game next Friday against Utah at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. The Huskies have the same exact opportunity.
Those stakes are plenty for WSU, but if the Cougars can eke out a victory, they’d also keep themselves in the hunt for a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff. It’s very much an outside shot right now, but a shot nonetheless.
There might not be anything different about the Huskies, who still have many of the tools that have allowed them to truck past the Cougars each of the past four years under Petersen, winning 31-13 in 2015, 45-10 in 2014, 45-17 in 2016 and 41-14 in 2017.
UW’s backfield is still powered by two seniors who’ve statistically been better than anyone else at their position in school history: running back Myles Gaskin (4,961 rushing yards) and quarterback Jake Browning (11,589 passing yards).
“They’re both phenomenal players,” WSU nickel Hunter Dale said. “They’ve been very successful against us in the past.”
And the Huskies are still menacing on defense – that hasn’t changed, either. They allow 16.6 points per game – best in the Pac-12, tied for 10th in the country and seventh among Power Five teams – and of WSU’s first 11 opponents, they’re most comparable to the Cal team that held the Cougars to just 19 points.
“We’ve seen some good defenses,” Leach said. “There’s some really good defense in this conference. I’d say three come to mind, they’re one of them. Huskies, Utah and Cal I think have good defenses. Then, of course, ours is a good defense and we see it every day.”
But while the Huskies are unchanged, there might be something different about the Cougars. Something other than the extra mustache in the quarterbacks room, although Gardner Minshew’s presence in this game could also be a major factor, what with the QB’s 4,325 passing yards and 36 touchdowns – both of which are FBS highs.
In the past, it’s possible the Cougars have been bogged down by expectations, or possibly even self-doubt. They don’t believe either is an issue in 2018.
“I just think people have listened to the hype in the past Apple Cups of how good Washington is and we’re their little brothers,” Dale said. “How they’ve beaten teams we may have lost to during the season. I just think this year people are believing we have something special under our belts and that we’re not really looking at this as the Apple Cup, we’re just looking at it as another team that’s in our way of achieving our goal.”
Sixth-year linebacker Peyton Pelluer and a group of WSU seniors will try to beat the Huskies for the first time on Friday, but the group has already accomplished plenty. More than any other in school history, actually.
The 17 seniors who will be recognized before Friday’s game own the school record for wins by a single class, with 36, which breaks the previous mark of 35 held by the 2004 Cougars. They’ve also helped WSU reach four consecutive bowl games, more than any other in program history.
The group of players that will be honored on Senior Day: Pelluer, Nick Begg (DL), Kyle Celli (LS), Taylor Comfort (DL), Solomon Cooper (RB), Dale (DB), Andre Dillard (OL), Kingston Fernandez (DL), Sean Harper Jr. (CB), Keith Harrington (RB), Robert Lewis (WR), Minshew (QB), Darrien Molton (CB), Chima Onyeukwu (RUSH), Kyle Sweet (WR), Logan Tago (DL) and Robert Valencia (OL).
“I feel like this team is going to be the most prepared,” Pelluer said. “Just making sure we have the mindset and everybody knows what’s at stake. We put in so much work in the offseason, this season, gone through so much to treat it like another game but at the end of the day, we’re playing for a lot and so are they.”