A Fateful Road to the Cup

PULLMAN --- Most pre-season pundits picked Washington State to finish last in the Pac-10. <I>Sports Illustrated</I> went so far as to project that 88 other teams in Division I-A would be better than the Fighting Cougs. And now, here we are, gearing up for a momentous Apple Cup. Oh, how fate weaves a magical web.

Arizona. Arizona State. Even Cal. And, believe it or not, Idaho and Boise State too.

Hard to believe now, but back in August those were among the teams SI slotted higher than WSU. Shoot, even the Huskies weren't getting much in the way of props, with most folks picking them to struggle to a fourth-place conference finish.

Today, on the eve of No. 9 WSU's showdown Saturday at 12:30 with No. 14 Washington, there is but one pundit whose words ring true: ESPN's Chris Berman.

"That's why we play the games," he often bellows after the gods of grid destiny have wielded their fickle will on the college world.

The same Cougs whom Athlon's suggested might go 0-11 are now 9-1 -- one victory over the Huskies and an Oregon loss to Oregon State away from the outright Pac-10 title and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl.

"It shows what the writers know," UW coach Rick Neuheisel said this week. "Coach Price and his staff are as good a group of coaches there are in the league. They had a bunch of kids who have played a lot of football and have a lot of experience coming back. I have been impressed with the entire deal. Their confidence has grown and it's at an all time high right now."

The Cougs are coming off two straight nail-biting victories, at Arizona State last week and UCLA the week before. The Dawgs, of course, were upset by OSU last week, taking some of the shimmer off what many hoped would be an Apple Cup for the Pac-10 title.

That OSU loss, however, doesn't figure to translate to an edge for the Cougars, says Mike Price. "They're a confident group. They don't panic. They're winners and they make plays and they have the athleticism to make those plays."

For Cougar players, last year's Apple Cup remains top of mind. The Huskies waltzed to a 51-3 victory in Pullman.

"We just got stomped and the score showed it all. We all feel we have something to prove, something we owe the Huskies," said WSU receiver Nakoa McElrath.

In order for the Cougs to continue the season they've been having they'll have to continue to do the things they've been doing all season long, Price said.

"We're just going to have to play like we always play," Price said. "I'm going to give the same pre-game speech I've given the first 10 games of the season. We need to limit our turnovers and limit our penalties and finish strong. If we do those things we can play with anyone."

Another key to the Cougars will be harnessing their emotions and stress levels in such a big game in front of 70,000 mostly-hostile fans.

"I haven't stressed the importance of the game with the team at all," Price said. "I don't think it's really necessary, the Apple Cup is enough so you don't want to be too up or too down. There seems to be a tendency to tense up when you do. We're going to try and keep an even keel and play our game and control the tempo and let our kids play."

If the Cougs do end up victorious on Saturday Price doesn't want this year's team to be compared to the '97 squad, he said.

"This year's group is a special bunch that have done it like no other team here's done it before," Price said. "In the first seven or eight games they won with commanding style and running away. They've done it the hard way and they've done it with great team chemistry. They are very, very special and will always be that way."

Let's hope they become a little more special Saturday.

KICKOFF: 12:30 pm, Husky Stadium

TV: Live on ABC Sports, with a replay Sunday at 10 am PT on Fox Sports NW.

THE LINE: Even

INJURY UPDATE: Cougar LB James Price, out last week, is expected back in action Saturday. RB David Minnich's knee is a bit tender but he'll be ready to go too. Fellow RB John Tippins suffered a shoulder ding on the last play at ASU but should be in good shape Saturday as well. The Cougars are cautiously optimistic Gesser will be ready to roll following the head-pounding he took in Tempe. The only Cougar expected out is special teams player Hamza Abdullah who suffered a knee injury vs. ASU. On the Husky side, three starters – QB Cody Pickett, TE Jeramy Stevens and OL Nick Newton – are all nursing nagging injuries but aren't expected to be miss any snaps Saturday.

NOTABLE NOTES

* Neuheisel on Gesser:
"He will make you hold your breath all afternoon. Jason is the main reason why they have had the season they are having …. Gesser is a playmaker and he finds ways to move the chains and finds ways to get the ball down the field. He is hard to tackle and is a guy who is going to keep plays alive."

* Amazing Lamont:
By nabbing his eighth INT of the season last week in Tempe, senior Lamont Thompson not only became the Pac-10 career air theft leader, with 22, but he moved into the NCAA top 10 for career INTs. His eight picks this season tie him for the WSU single-season record set in 1968 by Rick Reed -- the same man whom Thompson surpassed earlier this season for the top spot on the WSU career INT list. The four interceptions Thompson had against UCLA two weeks ago broke the WSU single-game record and tied the Pac-10 single-game record.

* Apple Cup Minutia:
WSU has won the last three Apple Cups in Seattle when the Cougars were coming off a win -- in 1983, 1985 and 1997.

* Dollars and sense:
According to the Seattle P-I, the UW coaching staff earns a collective $2.6 million per year in salary. WSU's staff earns $975,000. By our reckoning, that means the UW, 7-2 this season while WSU is 9-1, spent about $1.6 million for that second loss.

* Remembering Bernard:
As CF.C frequenters know, early 70s WSU back Bernard Jackson ranks as one of our all-time favorite Cougars. Any opportunity to resurrect his name is greeted with glee. So special thanks to sophomore kicker Drew Dunning for letting us do that today. With just one more point, he will pass the legendary Jackson and move into the No. 4 spot on WSU's single-season scoring list. The two are currently tied at 84 points. Ten more points and Dunning will move past Rian Lindell into the No. 3 spot.

* The Tackling Man:
Senior safety Billy Newman, with eight tackles against ASU, has 313 career tackles to rank sixth on WSU's single season list. He is seven stops away from early 70s linebacker Gary Larson, sixth on the list with his 317 tackles. Also, we need to correct ourselves from last week when we said Newman, going into the ASU game, was tied with Artie Holmes for most career tackles by a Cougar DB. It's actually Palouse Posse vet John Rushing (344 tackles), a four-year starter, who has the most stops out of the secondary.


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