PULLMAN – Thanks to Saturday’s outcomes, Washington State is still in the running for a Pac-12 North title.
It’s another odd turn in an already wild season for the Cougars – they need just two results to go their way next weekend, and they’ll be playing for a conference championship in Las Vegas.
No – just Pac-12 football in 2021.
First, WSU (6-5, 5-3 Pac-12) must defeat Apple Cup rival Washington for the first time since 2012.
The Cougars and Huskies kick off at 5 p.m. Friday in Seattle.
If WSU prevails, it’ll be rooting for Oregon State (7-4, 5-3), which takes on Oregon (9-2, 6-2) in Eugene on Saturday.
Should the Cougs and Beavs both win, three Pac-12 North teams will hold identical conference records.
The tiebreaker – record within the division.
If all falls into place, the Cougars would sit atop the North at 4-1 and therefore earn a bid to the Pac-12 title game.
The conference’s two divisional champions meet for the crown – and a Rose Bowl berth – at 5 p.m. Dec. 3 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
Utah steamrolled third-ranked UO 38-7 and OSU handled Arizona State 24-10 on Saturday to give life to WSU’s Pac-12 aspirations. The Ducks opened as 13-point favorites over the Beavers.
The Cougars seemed to fall out of contention for the North title with a 38-24 loss to the Ducks two weeks ago, but WSU stayed in contention mathematically after drubbing Arizona 44-18 on Friday.
“There’s still a lot to play for,” interim coach Jake Dickert said after the senior night blowout at a foggy Gesa Field.
The Cougs opened as three-point underdogs against UW (4-7, 3-5), per Sports Illustrated, but that number fluctuated throughout Sunday. Later in the evening, WSU was a two-point favorite.
The Huskies have won seven straight in the series, all by double digits.
But it’s been a down year on the west side.
UW will miss a bowl game for the first full season since 2009. The Huskies are coming off a demoralizing loss to Colorado. They are also playing under an acting coach in Bob Gregory, a Spokane native and former Cougar linebacker (1984-86) who took the helm when Jimmy Lake was fired last Sunday.
“I’m thinking about it right now,” sixth-year WSU linebacker Jahad Woods said after the UA game when asked about the Apple Cup. “I’m thinking about it immediately. I want to win this game so bad, not only for the teammates that I have now and the coaches I have now, but for my teammates that didn’t win it these past five years that I’ve been a part of playing in the Apple Cup. It’s something that’s super important to me and I’m not going to take this week lightly.”
Many of the players on this upperclassmen-laden WSU squad are familiar with the sting of losing the Evergreen State’s rivalry clash, but it’ll be the first taste of the Apple Cup for this second-year staff. Last season’s edition of the matchup was called off because of COVID-19 issues within the Cougars’ program.
“We’re going to have to earn it, and we’ll earn it through our preparation, we’ll earn it through our work and earn it throughout the week of sticking to our process,” Dickert said. “It’s the biggest game of the year because it’s the only one we’re playing this next week – that’s going to be our approach. We know we’re gonna go into a great environment, but we’re going to be ready to compete and throw everything into that next week.”
Dickert, who was promoted to acting boss after coach Nick Rolovich was fired Oct. 18 for failing to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccine mandate, has his team playing inspired ball down the stretch. Yet he has consistently redirected credit to the players.
“They never quit on themselves,” he said. “After everything happened with the coaching change, the captains came together and said, ‘We will change the momentum. We will move forward and we will keep pressing.’
“I told them, ‘Do it for you guys, do it for the bond you formed in the locker room and do it for what you guys have accomplished here.’ “
WSU’s senior class helped establish a program standard of qualifying for bowl games. It’ll be the third bowl appearance for many WSU players and the fourth for some of these Cougs, who punched their postseason ticket with a dominant outing spearheaded by vets like Max Borghi, Travell Harris and Calvin Jackson Jr.
The three of them combined for 367 yards and six touchdowns against Arizona.
“Those guys want to keep playing together,” Dickert said. “They just want to keep this thing going, and that celebration in the locker room showed it.”
Borghi moves up the leaderboard
Along with his career-high 139 yards and a superb 8.7 yards per carry in his Pullman finale, Borghi rumbled in for two scores versus the Wildcats to move past former receiver Gabe Marks on WSU’s all-time scoring list.
Borghi has 39 TDs on his career, just shy of running back Steve Broussard, who accumulated 41 between 1986-89.
“Max has been steady throughout his career,” Dickert said. “He’s just one of those guys. It was great to see him in some space (Friday). The O-line did a great job, got him in some space a couple of times, we hit a couple of draws and screens.
“Our fans will remember Max and, obviously, he’s going to be a hall of famer here someday. Just exciting to put a little stamp on his career and what he’s done for our program.”
Offensive coordinator Brian Smith sought to “get (UA) closer to the line of scrimmage” with an effective rushing attack, Dickert noted, so the Cougs could then find openings downfield in the pass game.
“It felt good to run the ball a little bit,” said a grinning Borghi. “It was working, and we were obviously using it.”
Borghi and Deon McIntosh totaled a combined 212 yards on 26 attempts.
When the Wildcat defensive backs crept up to play the run, WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura eyed Jackson or Harris, both of whom were often left in single coverage. The slot duo logged catches of 78, 43, 32 and 31 yards.
“It was our last game (in Pullman) and we just wanted to go out in style,” said Harris, who leads the Pac-12 this season with nine receiving touchdowns. “That’s what we did.”
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