Never mind the impressive 9-2 record. Kalen DeBoer's first bite at the Apple Cup will be what makes or breaks his first season with the Washington Huskies.
The other stuff is simply all bark.
"We definitely don't have that trophy in our case right now," DeBoer told reporters of the Apple Cup, the hardware handed out to the winner of the annual rivalry game between his Huskies and the Washington State Cougars. "I know it means a lot. One of two games I know Husky Nation circles every year. Looking for another great week.
"And playing for a lot more than just the trophy."
Yes, there are bragging rights — currently owned by the Cougars — that go with the Apple Cup win.
But more importantly for Washington (6-2 in Pac-12 play), a victory over the current holders of those rights late Saturday at Martin Stadium in Pullman could mean a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game for the Huskies.
The path to such a wonderful place is not in their control, but it can happen with the following fallout in Week 13's Pac-12 action:
1) California beats UCLA on Friday afternoon (or, if UCLA wins, then Colorado has to knock off Utah on Saturday afternoon).
2) Oregon State beats Oregon on Saturday afternoon in Corvallis.
3) The Huskies beat the Cougars on Saturday night.
All of the above must come true for Washington — currently 13th in the College Football Playoff rankings — to reach the conference championship.
But, of course, the Cougars aren't about to roll over and just let that happen if the conference's other games fall the Huskies' way.
"We know what the Apple Cup means to everybody," Washington State head coach Jake Dickert told reporters. "It means a lot to our players. It means a lot to our fan base. It means a lot to Cougs everywhere. And our guys will be ready to fight when the challenge comes."
At 7-4 (4-4 in conference), Dickert's chargers have proven they can fight this season.
They will be ready for their rivals, especially on home turf.
No. 13 Washington at Washington State
When Washington Has the Ball
Few teams know how to move the ball better than the Huskies. Only four others in the entire FBS average more yards per game than Washington's 505.2.
And that offense proved again last week that it doesn't always have to do it behind the arm of Michael Penix Jr.
Sure, the quarterback is still No. 1 in the nation through the air — his 3,869 yards to go along with 26 touchdowns put him within striking distance of Cody Pickett's single-season school record of 4,458 yards. But he's got help in the backfield these days.
Last Saturday at home, Washington racked up 575 total yards in a 54-7 demolition of Colorado, 280 of those yards coming on the ground. Senior running back Wayne Taulapapa was the biggest contributor with 107 yards and two touchdowns on just 11 carries, and he did this on Senior Day. His 57-yard run to paydirt was the highlight.
"For him to have the game he had, the team has been great with him all week," head coach Kalen DeBoer said of Talaupapa, who transferred to the Huskies from Virginia. "He's been so critical to our success this year with his consistency on and off the field."
Sophomore backfield mate Cameron Davis also got into the act with 59 yards on 12 carries, including an electrifying TD that saw him somersault into the end zone.
That made for quite the balanced attack, with Penix going 19-of-31 for 229 yards and a score — a pedestrian night by his standards this season.
"They are definitely fun to watch," Huskies co-defensive coordinator William Inge told reporters of the offense. "Very multiple, and they get the ball in the hands of the skill players, and they do a great job of being able to get the ball into the right spaces. That's why I love coach DeBoer and (offensive) coach (Ryan) Grubb and the things that they are able to do with offense. Because with that combination, now, in turn, you understand how to win football games."
That said, the Washington State defense has done a good job limiting the damage done on the scoreboard, holding teams to a Pac-12-leading 19.8 points per game. Two fourth-quarter TDs by the Arizona Wildcats made last week's game, a 31-20 Cougars win on the road, look closer than it actually was. Wazzu intercepted Jayden de Laura, a former Cougar, four times and held the 'Cats to just 84 rushing yards and less than four yards per carry.
Washington features a more potent offense than Arizona, but it will be critical for the Huskies to show balance to keep Washington State's D on its toes
When Washington State Has the Ball
The Cougars may not rank in the same area as Washington's offense, but Wazzu can be dangerous, too. Incarnate Word transfer Cameron Ward has handled the step up very well, completing 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,772 yards and 21 touchdowns with eight interceptions. Last week against Arizona, Ward was 25-of-36 for 193 yards and a touchdown while chipping in a season-high 59 yards on the ground, highlighted by a 17-yard TD scamper.
Junior running back Nakia Watson continued his recent strong play, scoring twice against the Wildcats. In three games since returning from injury, Watson has run for 338 yards with six touchdowns.
"I think he's been everything," Dickert told reporters earlier this week about Watson. "He hasn't quite been 100 percent, but he's gutting it out — he's giving this team everything he's got."
That'll be important against a Huskies defense that's had its inconsistencies against the run. It's up and then down, and when foes can grind it out, they've put themselves in position to win.
It would serve Wazzu well to have a balanced attack to take advantage of Washington's D wherever. The Huskies are among the best in the conference statistically. But there are holes in the secondary.
Plus why wouldn't you want to keep the ball out of Penix's hands by chewing up the clock? And the shorter the game, the better for Wazzu these days.
The offense has been super in the first halves of the last three outings — all wins — scoring 91 points combined. But then it runs into consistency problems in the second halves, with just 20 combined points to show.
"I think it's just being more conservative in the second half," Ward said. "I don't like playing that way. I talked to (offensive coordinator) Coach (Eric) Morris and Coach Dickert about it. I don't think we have a reason to play conservative. It's time to leave it all out there. Play fast and play with tempo like we always do."
It is the Apple Cup, after all.
No matter how it shakes down Saturday, call it a successful season for both sides.
Washington's already rewarded DeBoer with a two-year contract extension through 2028 — that agreement coming Tuesday amid a five-game winning streak.
And Dickert's time with Washington State — now 10-7 dating back to the midway point of 2021 and currently on a three-game winning run — has proved pretty successful, as well.
So the Apple Cup merits a place among the top rivalries of the year.
"In my eyes, it's up there for sure — probably top three," said Ward, who's trying to pace the Cougars to consecutive wins over the Huskies for the first time since 2008. "The biggest rivalry I like is the Egg Bowl. I say we're up there with that one right there. Just being able to play in a big rivalry game like this for the state of Washington. Just trying to get a win is something Coug fans want."
The same goes for Husky Nation, which could have the added motivation of owning a chance to reach the conference championship. But even if that's beyond Washington's grasp by kickoff, just knowing they were in that race should give them cause for promise in the future.
It's just been that solid of a turnaround for the Huskies.
"I expected us to have a lot of success … I did," DeBoer said. "When we got into fall camp, there were some points where we knew we had some good things happening. We knew we could score, and our defense was still making it tough on our guys at times. And then there's the character in the players. We were pushing hard during camp, and they never resisted. Execution kept happening at an elite level. With the talent we had, I felt we could do some damage. I didn't have a number in mind other than just improving each week."
That winning number could — and should — reach 10 for Washington come Saturday, so the Huskies can move on from last year's Wazzu flag plant at midfield and hopefully onward to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Prediction: Washington 44, Washington State 34
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