Washington running back Dillon Johnson is brought down by Oregon State linebacker Cory Stover (82) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, in Corvallis, Ore. (Mark Ylen/The Associated Press)

Washington running back Dillon Johnson is brought down by Oregon State linebacker Cory Stover (82) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, in Corvallis, Ore. (Mark Ylen/The Associated Press)

APPLE CUP: This year is a game full of subplots for UW, WSU

  • By Tim Booth The Associated Press
  • Thursday, November 23, 2023 1:00pm
  • SportsHuskies

SEATTLE — Looking back at the on-field celebration of a blowout victory two years ago, the planting of the crimson flag on the purple “W” at midfield was the day the current run of success for No. 4 Washington started.

Even if it came at the hands of watching a rival party on the Huskies’ own field.

“Without that, who knows where we would be right now,” Washington tight end Jack Westover said. “I think it was one of the best things that ever happened to this program. I really do think that. It’s kind of weird saying it that way, but I think without that, I don’t think we’d be where we are right now.”

Where the Huskies are is on the brink of a magical season as they host rival Washington State on Saturday in the Apple Cup in a meeting that’s overflowing with story lines.

It’s the last Apple Cup with both members of the same conference, but the rivalry will continue because the schools reached agreement on a five-year deal to keep playing. It also comes with the sidebar of the schools embroiled in litigation off the field.

But with the subplot of the future taken care of, the focus is squarely on Washington’s chance at history trying to finish off an unbeaten regular season. Washington (11-0, 8-0 Pac-12) moved up to No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings this week and seems assured of a semifinal spot with a win over the Cougars and again next week in the Pac-12 championship game. They’ve won 18 straight games, including last week’s 22-20 win at Oregon State, and since losing to Washington State two years ago the Huskies are 22-2.

“Now we got to reclaim our own field, it feels like,” Washington edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui said. “There’s so much that we have to motivate ourselves.”

Washington State (5-6, 2-6) would love nothing more than to blow up the hopes of its rival and pick up a second straight win at Husky Stadium. The Cougars have the motivation of needing a win to reach bowl eligibility and last week rediscovered a little of the magic from their 4-0 start in a 56-14 rout of Colorado that snapped a six-game losing streak.

The Cougars have gone to a bowl in seven straight full seasons, but the only way that streak continues comes by pulling the upset. The last time the Cougars beat a top-five team on the road was 1988 when they knocked off No. 1 UCLA.

“I never understood the impact and the significance of this game until I actually became a Coug,” Washington State wide receiver Lincoln Victor said. “My first year here obviously going to Seattle and winning and storming the field you can see the hope in people’s eyes and really see the impact of what a game can truly do.”

Seeking perfection

While there is still the matter of what transpires next week in Las Vegas for Washington with the conference championship game, finishing off a perfect regular season would be a rare accomplishment.

Washington has a chance to be the first Pac-12 team to go undefeated in conference play since Oregon in 2010 when it was still the Pac-10. No conference team has finished the regular season unblemished overall since USC in 2004.

“Job is not done. We still got work to do,” Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said.

Heisman watch

Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. is no longer the Heisman Trophy favorite, but he has a chance these final two weeks to make a final statement. Penix is coming off his worst game of the year statistically against Oregon State, throwing for only 162 yards, although conditions played a role. Last season, Penix threw for 484 yards and had five total touchdowns against the Cougars and he’ll still have the stage of the Pac-12 championship game to make a final push in his Heisman campaign.

Ward key for Cougars

If Washington State is to pull off the upset, it’ll need a big game from QB Cam Ward. He did his part last year throwing for 322 yards and had three total touchdowns in the Apple Cup. But that was one of four games in his career at Washington State attempting more than 50 passes and the Cougars are 0-4 in those games. While Ward needs to be solid, the Cougars will also need to find some balance in the run game.

Conference finale

While the series will continue through at least 2028, this will be the final matchup between the schools in the same conference. The pair have been linked as conference brethren dating to the origins of the Pacific Coast Conference and when they meet next year on Sept. 14, 2024, at Lumen Field in Seattle, it’ll be the first time they’ll play outside the months of November or December since 1948.

It’ll be another adjustment in the new landscape for both programs.

“College football is not done changing. Not even remotely close,” Washington State coach Jake Dickert said.

Washington State running back Nakia Watson (25) celebrates his touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Colorado on Friday in Pullman, Wash. (Young Kwak/The Associated Press)

Washington State running back Nakia Watson (25) celebrates his touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Colorado on Friday in Pullman, Wash. (Young Kwak/The Associated Press)

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