Slicing up lots of mediocrity in these Apples

FOR THE FOURTH straight season, Washington State is favored to win the Apple Cup. And the point spread, 11, is the biggest of the bunch. Such is the condition of big-time college football here in the Evergreen State when WSU's worst team in a long while is expected to trounce its cross-state rival by the biggest margin in modern forecasting history.

Of course, expectations mean nothing. While favored, the Cougars – on the strength of a collective 16 turnovers – managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in each of the three previous Cups. For sheer misery, consider this: In the last two Apple Cups combined, the Huskies led in regulation time for all of 132 seconds yet came away with victories.

Whether Saturday's 4 pm televised contest in Pullman is another thriller remains to be seen. But one thing is crystal clear – this 97th showdown in the rivalry has all the appeal of a fart in a small church. The once-proud Huskies come in with just one victory (over lowly San Jose State, mind you), while the Cougars have all of four.

Some national statistics are testament to the badinage. Washington is dead last among all 117 Division 1-A schools in passing efficiency, but the Cougars aren't far behind at No. 90. In total offense, the Dawgs are No. 97 and the Cougars No. 67. In total defense, the Huskies rank No. 57 and the Cougars No. 64.

"We haven't played consistently enough to win games so it's frustrating. But we're just trying to look forward to the Apple Cup to try and get a big victory," said standout Cougar tackle Calvin Armstrong, one of 13 seniors who will be playing in a crimson uniform for the last time "Everybody's going to be hyped up, its going to be a packed house. This is my last game as a Cougar and as a college athlete. It's a huge game.

"Obviously we're not going to a bowl game so we're kind of treating this as our bowl game," he adds. "It's been a long time since both programs have been down a little bit but that's the way football goes."

On the all-time underwhelming list, at least in the modern age, this one ranks right up there with the 1973 and '74 affairs, in which the teams came in with a collective six wins both years. For the record, Charlie Peck, the pride of Ballard High, guided the Cougs to a 52-26 victory in 1973 while Denny Fitzpatrick, from Spokane's Gonzaga Prep, ran the Huskies to a 24-17 win in '74.

For the Mother of All stinkers, though, you have to go back to the Age Aquarius -- 1969 -- when the Cougs arrived with one win and the Huskies none.

But back to more recent history.

Armstrong was asked this week to psycho-analyze the Cougars' inexplicable ability to close the deal over the past two years. Do the Dawgs have some sort of mental voodoo going on here?

"They've just made some really nice plays down the stretch. We've had them on the ropes a few times and we just haven't been able to finish them. Hopefully this year will be our year," Armstrong says matter-of-factly.

There's also the little matter of injuries. The Cougars lost their starting QB during each of the last two Cups – Jason Gesser went down at the start of the fourth quarter in 2002 and Matt Kegel left in the second quarter last season. If that trend holds true, the Cougs will be in serious trouble, because Alex Brink is the only QB in uniform who has taken a snap in a real game. His backups are true freshman Gary Rogers – four quarters away from earning a redshirt – and two guys noted for their footwork rather than arm strength: punter Kyle Basler and kicker Graham Siderius.

DESPITE THE RECENT Apple Cup woes and the fact this is the first time since 2000 the Cougars aren't entering the game in quest of their 10th win of the season, there's no getting around that this group of WSU seniors will be leaving and enviable record: 34 wins over the last four seasons.

And there's one underclassman who wants to make sure they go out on a winning note.

"There's going to be a little bit extra film that you watch, you might stay out a little bit longer or come to practice a little bit earlier," says Brink, a second-year freshman making his fifth career start. "You've just got to work that much harder. For us, this is our season. This is our bowl game and we're trying to send the seniors out on the right note."

LAST WEEK: Both the Cougs and Dawgs lost to nationally ranked teams. WSU lost at No. 20 Arizona State 45-28 and Washington lost to No. 5 California 42-12.

THE LUCKY 13: On Saturday the Cougars will dress 13 seniors who helped craft the most impressive three-year run in school in school history with 10-win seasons in 2001, '02 and '03: FS Hamza Abdullah, OL Patrick Afif, OT Calvin Armstrong, LB Pat Bennett, SS Jeremy Bohannon, RB Chris Bruhn, DT Steve Cook, RB Blair Hawkins, OT Sam Lightbody, CB Karl Paymah, CB Tyler Sellers, WR John Williams and LB Brian Winter.

TELEVSION: ABC will broascast Saturday's game live throughout most of the West, with Keith Jackson and Dan Fouts on the call. Fox Sports Northwest will air the replay on Sunday at 3 pm.

RIVALRY FACTOID: From 1934 to 1961, Washington State and Washington played for the Governor's Trophy, which was usually presented to the winner by the governor. Since the 1962 season, the teams have played for the Apple Cup Trophy, which also is often presented to the winning team by the state's governor.

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