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Jacob Thorpe: Washington State shows even when gap is wide, the Apple Cup will always be worth playing

By Jacob Thorpe The Spokesman-Review

SEATTLE – When the sun sets in Husky Stadium during an afternoon Apple Cup, its red glow bounces off the crimson-wearing Washington State University fans, of whom there are many, and creates a mirage seeming as if the entire building is full of nothing but Cougars. The fact they are loud heightens the illusion.

Before WSU’s final drive ended without points, before Washington’s gutsy fourth-down conversion, before the dubious penalty call that moved the Huskies into field-goal position, and before that final kick sailed through the uprights, there was the roar of a visiting crowd that sure looked at home in its rival’s stadium.

With the score tied, with the outcome in doubt, with the stands buzzing and the roar of intermingled fans trying to coordinate opposing chants simultaneously, it was the epitome of what makes an ancient college football rivalry game so special.

It is those moments that should be – must be – preserved. Even as painful as it is for the fans who care most, when the team that has every advantage and usually wins has become the avatar for the injustices wrought upon your school, because it took the first lifeboat off the sinking Pac-12 Conference and did nothing to throw you some hope.

The Apple Cup will be played for at least five more years and it should continue for another 50 after that. Because even as the universities are in court to dissolve their marriage and split up their assets, Saturday was a beautiful fall day that brought the state together. The concrete parking lots were filled before the game with crimson- and purple-clad cousins, spouses, childhood friends and still-feeling-it-out couples. A woman still half-apologetically explains she is wearing a WSU beanie because her daughter attends, even though she got some postgrad certification at UW following her matriculation at Whitman.

The 10% most football-obsessed fans will never forgive; and that’s OK. It’s a rivalry. But for the other 90%, this game is too important to quit. It is the only Saturday when they and their friends and family are all watching the same game, at the same time, together. The only game you, as a WSU fan, get to hang out on Montlake and enjoy the feast your UW grad uncle puts together every autumn Saturday. The only weekend when you Huskies deign to cross the Cascades and discover that none of your big city mixologists can make a cocktail half as fine as the bartenders at Etsi Bravo.

For what it’s worth, the players want it to continue. And I’m talking about the players who have won, at most, one Apple Cup despite having the now defunct parity of Pac-12 membership.

“I think it’s important to understand there’s a lot of tradition in this game,” WSU edge rusher Brennan Jackson said. “Regardless of where the conferences end up, where teams are going to sort out, in-state rivalries run college football. Rivalries run this business, and I think it’s so important to continue to have a rivalry like this because it’s entertainment and it brings people together.”

A full moon hangs over Husky Stadium as Washington State and Washington battle it out during the second half of Saturday’s Pac-12 game in Seattle. UW won 24-21.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
A full moon hangs over Husky Stadium as Washington State and Washington battle it out during the second half of Saturday’s Pac-12 game in Seattle. UW won 24-21. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Despite the Cougars coming up short, Saturday’s 24-21 loss to No. 4 UW serves as a rebuke to the idea that WSU has no reason to play an Apple Cup when it no longer has the equalizer of major conference membership.

The on-paper gap between these teams is wide. The fourth-ranked Huskies entered the game on a 19-game win streak while WSU came in with a losing record. And yet, the Cougars outplayed their rivals in their own house. The visitors had nearly 80 more yards than the home team, five more first downs, and gained more yards per play. The Huskies won because of the superlative talent of edge rusher Bralen Trice and wide receiver Rome Odunze.

Trice single-handedly put WSU quarterback Cam Ward on his heels throughout the game, holding down the WSU offense on enough drives to give the sputtering UW offense enough chances. And Odunze made the key, decisive, winning plays. Just like he did in UW’s narrow win against Oregon. Just like he did last week at Oregon State. And the Huskies needed him to do it again, or they would not have beaten the Cougars.

There will be more games like this where anyone can win. Sometimes it will be WSU. Perhaps playing the game earlier in the year will be to WSU’s benefit, since teams are sloppy in September, wins are more random and depth is less of an issue.

“It’s going to be different being an out of conference game, I think we all know that,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “We’ve been talking all week about how it’s bittersweet being in September, not being the last game of the season. Did you see that stadium tonight? Did you see the passion of it?

“I’ve said it for five months, it’s a shame we just washed all that out. But I do think the game should continue. It’s the 115th game. Will it ever be the same? We’ll see. But I know it means something to everybody. Everybody.”