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Commentary: Motivated Washington State has best chance in years to fill vacant Apple Cup trophy case

By Jacob Thorpe For The Spokesman-Review

A few presidential administrations ago, back when Washington State’s football operations facility was new, former Director of Athletics Bill Moos did his best impression of an MTV Cribs walk-through (forgive the dated reference but, again, this was 2014).

Moos showed captive donors and media members underwater treadmills, a weight room with every fitness contraption short of a Peloton, and capped the tour with a vacant trophy case with space for only one tenant: the Apple Cup trophy held by the victor in the state’s annual Thanksgiving week football game between its biggest public universities.

“This space is reserved as the rightful home of the Apple Cup trophy,” reads the inscription on the case. “Its temporary absence leaves a hunger in all Cougars committed to its timely return.”

Timely? Let’s hope some hungry Cougar remembered to dust for cobwebs.

Washington State last beat the Huskies in November 2012. Maybe some players celebrated by seeing the first Avengers movie in theaters. Maybe they daydreamed about an iPhone you could wear on your wrist.

That victory capped an inauspicious three-win debut season by celebrated new pirate coach Mike Leach. And it served as the starting point for an era of WSU football that was among the program’s most successful ever, and certainly among its most newsworthy.

In the intervening years since that 2012 Apple Cup win the Cougars ended a decade-long postseason drought and played in six of its 16 bowl games.

A stoic, non-scholarship quarterback named Luke Falk won more games than any Pullman passer ever had in their career. Then Gardner Minshew, he of the moustache and whole Freddie Mercury aura took a team grappling with the tragic death of Tyler Hilinski to WSU’s first 11-win season.

But neither of them could put that Apple Cup trophy case to any use.

In the preceding years when neither program was very good, fans would talk about the “bragging rights” that were at stake – the ability to smirk at those co-workers who cared and know that their mediocre alma mater had beaten their cubicle mate’s.

But this recent Apple Cup losing streak has been downright consequential. In every Apple Cup from 2016-18 the Cougars could have gone to the Pacific-12 Conference’s championship game with a win. Once they even held semi-legitimate playoff aspirations.

And each time Cougars fans could leave early, wondering why they had bothered missing the post-Thanksgiving sales.

No matter how good the Cougars were, it seemed, they would never get past the Huskies and that put a lid on what dreams might come. Frustrations boiled over in 2019, when Leach seemed to despair over ever getting past the more-talented team from the westside by noting just how much higher UW’s recruiting classes were ranked by people who rank recruiting classes.

But I say that all ends on Black Friday, 2021.

Yes, WSU fans should line up early and stampede through the gates of Husky Stadium for Friday’s Interim Coaches Bowl. I’m here to tell you that acting WSU head coach Jake Dickert’s team is going to beat acting UW head coach Bob Gregory’s, and finally fill that desolate trophy case.

By doing so, WSU can end its extended period of post-Leach limbo. By playing ball off the field, and showing his team can play ball on it, Dickert has given WSU every reason to make his interim position permanent. The stakes for this Apple Cup are this: Can Dickert win and provide stability to a program whose floor was raised by Leach, and does not seem to have receded much since The Pirate turned in his eye patch for a Mississippi State cowbell?

Since the actual act of playing football is so violent, so uncomfortable, so dependent on adrenaline, a significantly more motivated team nearly always has the advantage, regardless of what the recruiting rankings indicate.

Ever since He Who Would Not Be Vaxxed made himself unemployable to state institutions, the Cougars have played inspired football. Dickert deserves credit for rallying a bunch of teenagers who were put in a bad situation, but more so the players deserve credit for maintaining their focus and playing with joy and passion, putting themselves in position to easily make a bowl game and, possibly, with a lucky break, the conference championship.

UW also fired its newish head football coach in the middle of this season, not because of Gubernatorial decree (although who can know UW alum Jay Inslee’s heart and mind but he?) but because the program’s vibes were off. The team was not winning, recruits were not calling and the administration decided to pull the plug before the house that Chris Petersen built crumbled entirely.

Without Jimmy Lake the past two weeks the Huskies have bumbled their way to some bad losses against unexceptional teams and have no hope for postseason play. Despite a roster full of players with reasonable NFL expectations, the Huskies have seemed to master the art of playing down to their opponent’s level and then playing just a little bit worse.

They have the look of a team that can’t wait for the season to end soon enough so they can set about the work of finding out who their new coach will be, or what schools are accepting transfers this offseason.

The Cougars are poised to once again finish a period of transition and cap the dawning of a new era with an Apple Cup win. Just don’t wait too long to visit the trophy. You don’t want to spend another decade waiting for the chance.

Jacob Thorpe covered Washington State football for the Spokesman-Review from 2013-2017.