The 111th Apple Cup: Put this one in the top 4

The weather will be chilly, the stakes high

The Apple Cup, a college football game held following Thanksgiving with its decidedly Northwest theme, compels totally normal people to dress up in garish crimson or purple fashion ensembles, drive up to 275 miles to a designated stadium and sit in the bitter cold to watch the spectacle play out.

Every so often, multiple overtimes, a heavy coating of snow, a Hail Mary pass or even mutual ineptitude—who can forget the 2008 “Crapple Cup” featuring 1-10 and 0-10 teams—adds to the mischief, mayhem and folklore.

Then there are the rare matchups like this one, the 111th meeting between these fine institutions, where Friday’s game in Pullman offers ultimate reward mixed in with tradition and school spirit.

Seventh-ranked Washington State (10-1, 7-1) and No. 16 Washington (8-3 overall, 7-2 Pac-12) go at it with everything at stake for each side—a conference championship berth, a possible Rose Bowl trip, insufferable bragging rights—in a rivalry scenario that can be counted on only one hand.

This is Apple Pie a la Mode IV. An irresistible topping sweetening the main dish. A sequel to the handful of Rocky heavyweight title bouts.

“That’s all we want to do is beat the Cougs and win the Pac-12,” said UW senior cornerback Jordan Miller, whose Huskies harbored national playoff aspirations when the season began and seek alternative rewards now. “That’s our idea of success right now.”

Friday’s showdown joins Apple Cups in 1981, 1997 and 2016 as epic encounters, where each school has everything to win and an ungodly amount to lose, where the atmosphere turns extra tense and electric. Here’s a replay of these titanic struggles:

1981: Washington 23, WSU 10

No Apple Cup will supplant this game for emotional overload. Fans descended on Husky Stadium hurling verbal taunts at each other. The mood was confrontational. The 14th-ranked Cougars were 8-1-1, seeking their first Rose Bowl, make that any bowl game, in 51 seasons; No. 17 UW was 8-2, trying to return to Pasadena for a second consecutive year, to add to its football spoils. The onus was on Jim Walden’s team to make a huge breakthrough and it didn’t happen.

Things came undone for WSU when Paul Skansi caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Steve Pelluer with eight seconds remaining in the first half, putting the Huskies ahead for good at 10-7. The ball was underthrown but the resourceful Skansi turned back and dove over defensive back Nate Bradley to make the catch. The Cougars never recovered. The UW was Rose Bowl-bound; WSU settled for the Holiday Bowl.

“This is the biggest disappointment of my coaching career, but I’m even more disappointed for my players,” Walden said somberly.

1997: WSU 41, Washington 35

It took 16 years before the Cougars got another shot at the Rose Bowl and they didn’t squander this one. They were 9-1 and ranked 11th nationally entering Husky Stadium, facing a No. 17 UW team that was 7-3 and headed to the Cotton Bowl if it could prevail. Before an Apple Cup-record crowd of 74,268 sitting in wet conditions, WSU spotted its hosts an opening touchdown before rattling off 24 unanswered points. Ryan Leaf threw for 358 yards and a couple of scores. Freshman Lamont Thompson intercepted the Huskies three times to lead the defense.

Leaf spiked the football when the game ended and WSU fans spilled onto the field, with red-painted students climbing the goal posts. UW followers stood and applauded the Cougars for getting it done—for ending a now 67-year Rose Bowl drought and earning a shot to play Michigan. The Huskies settled for a trip to Hawaii and the Aloha Bowl to play Michigan State.

“The rain must have been the tears of Babe Hollingbery and Mel Hein,” said Shawn McWashington, WSU defensive back, referring to the legendary coach and player who headlined the school’s 1931’s Rose Bowl team.

2016: Washington 45, WSU 17

It was winner-take-all before a sellout crowd of 33,000-plus in Pullman, with the 6th-ranked and 10-1 Huskies and No. 23 and 8-3 Cougars each playing for the right to advance to the Pac-12 championship game for the first time. It took a quarter to decide things. Jake Browning threw three touchdown passes in the opening 15 minutes and his UW defense was in control thereafter, intercepting quarterback Luke Falk three times and putting up two goal-line stands.

“We don’t have time to pat ourselves on the back for winning 11 games,” Browning said in the aftermath. “We came into the season expecting to be in close games and win a lot of games.”

There was more hype to come, though it wasn’t nearly as fun as this Apple Cup lead-in. The Huskies went on to beat Colorado for the league title and lose to Alabama in the CFP semifinals; the Cougars ended up in the Holiday Bowl.

2018: Washington vs. WSU

Here we go again. Another magical Apple Cup in Pullman. A showdown with a league championship berth on the line for each team. Even more amazing, a total role reversal, adding to the build-up.

When the season began, highly regarded Washington was ranked 6th, considered a one- or two-loss team and projected as a serious playoff candidate. As it winds down, the unsung Cougars are 7th, once-beaten and hoping to sneak into the final four.

The game could be a point-fest. WSU comes off 605 yards of total offense against Arizona generated in a 69-28 victory; the Huskies rolled up 503 yards of total offense in a 42-23 win over Oregon State. Cougars quarterback Gardner Minshew, the man with the distinctive mustache and the accurate right arm, leads the nation with 4,325 yards passing this season and should be considered a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. Huskies running back Myles Gaskin enters the contest with 4,961 career rushing yards, putting him fifth in league history with a good chance to move up two more slots.

Storylines are everywhere. WSU senior linebacker Peyton Pelluer is the nephew of Steve Pelluer, who helped settle the 1981 Apple Cup for the other side, and the son of Scott Pelluer, former WSU linebacker and UW assistant coach. The younger Pelleur is a sixth-year player for the Cougars after receiving injury waivers. He’s seeking his first rivalry game victory over the Huskies after going 0-5; his dad was 0-4 against them (3-2 against WSU as an assistant).

No one comes into this contest feeling lackadaisical or disinterested. For both sides, it's time to lay everything on the line.

“It’s what the fans want,” UW linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven said. “It's what everyone wants. You want the game to matter.”