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What’s the importance of the Apple Cup? Inside how WSU players pass it on

PULLMAN – Nearly two years ago, when Cameron Ward was a free agent and looking to climb to the FBS level, he stopped in Pullman for an official visit at Washington State.

When Ward arrived on campus, head coach Jake Dickert showed him around, including the Cougar Football Complex.

One of the first things Dickert showed Ward was the Apple Cup trophy, which WSU had won a month prior with a 41-13 win over rival Washington.

Ward committed to Washington State roughly a week later.

“So it’s a big thing,” Ward said, “not only to the football team but to the community. We gonna do our best, try to get a win in a tough environment. Try to come back to Pullman at 6-6.”

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the Apple Cup to the players involved – especially as the backdrop changes. Saturday’s game, set for 1 p.m. at Husky Stadium in Seattle, will be the last game played as a Pac-12 affair. As Washington bolts for the Big Ten and as WSU looks for a new conference home, the next four games will be played as nonconference tilts.

Maybe that will that change how the game feels. What won’t change is how the matchup’s importance gets passed down from class to class, player to player, a century-old rivalry persisting through the machine of college football’s changing ecosystem.

To the Cougars, who will be going for their sixth win and bowl eligibility in Saturday’s game, it starts at the top.

“I always lean to more of the importance of what the Apple Cup means, what the rivalry means, so they understand what they’re walking into,” Dickert said. “To say it’s just another game is not fair. It’s not.”

For that reason, the game’s significance lives at the forefront of the Cougars’ minds – especially those who grew up with an awareness of it.

Take Lincoln Victor, a senior wideout from Vancouver, Washington. He’s been watching the Apple Cup since he was in diapers.

“But I never understood the impact and the significance of this game until I actually became a Coug,” Victor said. “My first year here, obviously, going to Seattle, went in and storming the field. You could see the hope in people’s eyes, and really see the impact of what a game can truly do to a community, to a university and to a state as well.”

The way Victor sees it, as a veteran WSU player, it’s on him to share the game’s importance with the younger guys on the team. On this year’s roster, there are younger guys, players who may grow to impact the game this year and in the ones to come – true freshmen Leo Pulalasi and Carlos Hernandez, Adrian Wilson and Isaac Terrell.

Being around the team, around the game, might help those guys understand what the Apple Cup means to the program. To hear it from someone with Victor’s pedigree, though, may help them understand its gravity.

“I think we have to do a lot more to just constantly remind people what this game is actually about,” Victor said. “This doesn’t not only mean something to this team, but like I said, to the whole community, man. There’s so much weighing on this game that you can either fall short of it, or you can rise to the occasion.

“I think, for a guy like Carlos and for these young guys who haven’t experienced this type of environment, it’s gonna be a great experience for them. But you gotta treat it the right way. Not playing out of your comfort zone, making sure you’re doing all things in character and not having an out-of-body experience, making sure we’re doing our job.”

To make it two straight wins in Seattle, which Washington State hasn’t accomplished since former quarterback Alex Brink guided the Cougars to three straight Apple Cup wins in the mid-2000s, WSU will need to do a lot right. Ward needs to hold on to the ball. The defense needs to corral UW quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and his elite receivers, and the running game will need to finish what it started last week against Colorado.

That’s where WSU safety Jaden Hicks – and cornerback Cam Lampkin, for that matter – will come in. The Huskies’ feature some of the country’s best receivers. Hicks gets the challenge of reading their routes and making plays in the secondary.

A redshirt sophomore, even Hicks remembers the stories from the elder statesmen on the team, the guys who imparted the rivalry’s meaning to their burgeoning star.

“I remember they always just preached about them, hating them,” Hicks said . “It’s kind of like the culture we’ve built around here. So we hate the purple and yellow. It is what it is.”

Important as the game is, though, WSU understands what’s on the line for its season: bowl eligibility, which the Cougars haven’t missed out on – save for the COVID-shortened 2020 season – since 2014.

To extend that streak, the Cougars need a win.

They desperately want to win the Apple Cup. They also really want to secure bowl eligibility. They can earn both in one game – but to do both, they also understand the importance of staying within themselves.

“At the end of the day,” Dickert said, “the way we prepare for it, the way we plan for it and the way we need to execute is just like any other game, as far as going out there and getting a win.”