Jordan Miller knows the Apple Cup doesn’t need any extra emphasis, but he doesn’t mind that this year’s version is getting some, anyway.
Miller had plenty of reasons to smile after Washington’s 42-23 victory over Oregon State last week. The senior defensive back had just won his final game at Husky Stadium, playing for the first time in two games after an injury he suffered against Oregon.
The biggest smiles, though, came as the conversation turned to Friday night’s matchup against Washington State. This year, the rivalry game is for more than bragging rights. Just like in 2016, the winner will take the Pac-12 North and advance to the conference championship game against Utah on Nov. 30.
“I think it’s going to be a fun game,” Miller said, leaning forward and grinning in anticipation. “It’s going to be cool. And I’m glad it’s at their house.”
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UW leads he all-time series 72-32-6 and head coach Chris Petersen has never lost to Washington State. The Huskies have taken the last five games, winning the last four by an average of 27 points.
Friday’s game marks the second time in three seasons that the Apple Cup will decide the Pac-12 North. This year, the No. 8 Cougars are ranked ahead of No. 16 UW, but the Huskies aren’t using that as extra motivation. They don’t need any, Miller said. Not with the Pac-12 championship on the line.
“I feel like we seem to lock in every time we have to go against them,” Miller said. “No matter what, it’s a battle. It’s always supposed to be a really good game and we expect no different this year. We’re going to have a plan, they’re going to have a plan. We’ll see what happens.”
Minutes before, linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven was succinct with his thoughts about the Apple Cup.
“It’ll be fun,” he said. “It’s always fun to play the Cougs.”
Like Miller, Burr-Kirven is embracing the stakes of this year’s game: two ranked teams, the Pac-12 North on the line. It’s what the fans want, he said. It’s what everyone wants.
“You want the game to matter,” he said. “You don’t want it to be two 3-7 teams playing each other and it’s just kind of a throwaway game. It’s always really fun when you have a chance to play a good team.
“We’re hopefully as good a team as they are. It’s been that way the past couple years. We’re both of us ranked and that kind of stuff. It’s fun to play in games that really matter.”
UW offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan spent last season as the quarterbacks coach for the Atlanta Falcons. There’s nothing in the NFL that compares to college football rivalry games, he said. That’s part of the pageantry.
“At the beginning of the year, if you told these guys you’d have an opportunity to win this game, play for the North, be in the Pac-12 championship with everything on the line, they’d take it,” Hamdan said. “We’re excited as heck and I think this will just add to the experience.”
Husky defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe lettered for UW from 1993-96. Asked what he remembered about the rivalry, Malloe was quick with a joke.
“Um, winning?” he said.
He smiled then, talked about the game in 1996. Overtime was instituted in college football that season, and Malloe was part of the Apple Cup’s first overtime game. The Huskies won, 31-24.
Rivalry game victories are exciting, Malloe said, but they’re also exhausting. After the first 10 minutes of celebration, players and coaches are drained for the remainder of the night.
“You spend so much time and emotional in terms of whether it be anger or concentration, focus, execution, physical effort,” he said. “When it’s all done, most of both sides are pretty exhausted.”
UW’s defensive backs look forward to this game, Miller said. He quickly clarified that wasn’t a slight against Washington State. But most opponents this season have shied away from attacking the Huskies’ vaunted secondary.
He knows that won’t happen against the Cougars.
“They throw the ball a lot so we try to really lock in and do our assignments when they come to town,” Miller said. “We like the challenge that they put up.
“A lot of teams, they throw the ball up and that’s what they’re supposed to do and then they don’t do it against us for some reason. Washington State always does. Not knocking them. It’s just, they actually throw the ball. We love the competition. We love the idea that we get to compete.”
In their Monday press conferences, Petersen and Washington State head coach Mike Leach traded stories and compliments.
Petersen described Leach showing up 30 minutes late to a coaches meeting with In-N-Out, while Leach described Petersen as the kind of guy his parents wanted him to be growing up.
“I think he’s really smart guy,” Petersen said, “and he sticks to the script and he can weather the storm.”
Said Leach: “He’s a fantastic guy. I can see why my parents said I should be more like him.”
It didn’t sound much like the talk of rivals. But when he was asked to describe the Apple Cup, Petersen let some of his other feelings sneak through.
“It’s your typical big rivalry,” he said. “I think anybody that wears purple in (Pullman), the bristles start to stand up, ‘What are these people doing here?’
“When you live in a big city, everybody gets away with wearing red around here. I’m kind of trying to figure out why. Why wouldn’t we bristle up when we see those Cougar flags around here? I don’t like it, but I guess it’s a double standard.”