The Apple Cup rivalry, pitting Washington against Washington State, has Pac-12 North title implications for the second time in three seasons. But the 2018 installment of the series, which dates back to 1900, just has a more important vibe.
The 2016 Apple Cup saw a heavily favored Washington team steamroll Washington State, 45-17, en route to the program's first conference championship since 2000. This time around, the host Cougars are slight favorites with budding College Football Playoff prospects. However, they must reverse a few trends to reach their first Pac-12 Championship Game — among them, a long string of struggles against the Huskies.
College football's spotlight will shine on the Palouse this Black Friday with a trip to Levi's Stadium at stake.
Washington at Washington State
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 23 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Washington State -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Flash the 'stache
A Heisman Trophy campaign for Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew makes note of his Magnum P.I.-era Tom Selleck mustache. But it's not the facial hair that has Minshew poised to become the first Mike Leach-coached quarterback to head to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
Minshew has delivered for the Cougars all season, putting up a nation-leading 4,325 passing yards at a 70.4 percent completion clip, with 36 touchdowns against seven interceptions. Gaudy numbers are nothing new for quarterbacks in Leach's pass-happy, air-raid system, but the journeyman Minshew has differentiated himself with his complete control over all phases of the game. He works with a surgical precision that gives Washington State, remarkably, the Pac-12 lead in time of possession.
Waiting for Minshew and Washington State's rotation of pass-catchers is one of the most talented secondaries in all of college football. Washington comes to Pullman boasting a lineup about as deep and diverse as the various receivers Washington State employs. Taylor Rapp, Jojo McIntosh, Myles Bryant and Byron Murphy are individually four of the best the Pac-12 has to offer, and their efforts bear it out with yields of just 192.8 passing yards per game and a scant 5.9 yards per pass attempt.
2. Protecting Jake
One of the big question marks in the Pac-12 last offseason was how Washington State could endure the departure of defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Grinch, who took the same post at Ohio State, completely transformed one of the worst defenses in FBS into one of the most fearsome.
Enter Tracy Claeys. The former Minnesota head coach picked up where Grinch left off, instituting a unique defensive style that has made Washington State the most prolific sack-producing defense in the Pac-12. The Cougars' ability to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks is key to their defensive approach.
The Washington offensive line faces a stiff challenge. Senior quarterback Jake Browning — who became the winningest signal-caller in Pac-12 history last week — can be one of the most effective passers in the conference. He's also prone to mistakes when faced with heavy pressure. Giving him a clean pocket is of paramount importance, and fortunately for the Huskies, reinforcements have arrived with preseason All-America tackle Trey Adams back in the fold.
3. Watch your backs
Two of the best running backs the Pac-12 has to offer will be on opposite sidelines of the Apple Cup. Each brings something entirely different to the table, but there's no questioning either's importance.
For Washington, Friday marks the final regular-season game in the illustrious career of Myles Gaskin. Gaskin comes in ranked fifth all-time for career rushing yards in conference history — and should he produce the kind of numbers he's had in his last two outings (148 yards on Nov. 3 vs. Stanford, 135 yards last week vs. Oregon State), he will move to No. 3 all-time in Pac-12 history.
Washington State's James Williams is nowhere near any career rushing records, but Williams plays a vital part in the Cougars offense. His 69 receptions lead Washington State and function as a sort of rushing attack in an offense almost exclusively reliant on the pass. Williams' presence is dangerous, because it forces the defense to either load up on defensive backs and cover him like a receiver, or place a linebacker into passing situations. Williams is also effective as a blocker when Minshew takes shots deeper down the field.
Washington State coach Mike Leach's only Apple Cup win came in his first crack at the rivalry six years ago. His teams are winless against Chris Petersen-coached squads, making Friday one opportunity for the Cougars to end a dubious trend. The other is undoing years of heartbreaking failures, known in the college football lexicon as Cougin' It.
For the uninitiated, Cougin' It is the West Coast version of the long-since retired "Clemsoning," that is to say, losing in a particularly gut-wrenching fashion to deny a team championship glory. Three years ago for Washington State, it came in the form of Christian McCaffrey walking a tight rope on Halloween night to bump the Cougars from first place in the North. Two years ago, it was a turnover-plagued loss at Colorado before Washington dismantled the Cougars at Martin Stadium.
This Washington State seems to be built differently, having won games while rolling up huge offensive numbers (69-28 last week against Arizona) and surviving nail-biting defensive struggles (19-13 over Cal earlier this month). But Washington is built differently now, too, compared to a few weeks ago. The Huskies team that lost to Oregon and Cal last month was without Hunter Bryant, Trey Adams, Jordan Miller, D.J. Beavers and Shane Bowman. All are back for the Apple Cup.
Washington should be up to the challenge that Washington State poses. Expect an excellent game that matches the intensity of the legendary 1997 Apple Cup, only this time, with the Huskies scoring the win.