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The Maddening Duality of the Apple Cup

It means something, but it doesn’t mean anything at all.

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State
The Apple Cup is a significant but misunderstood contest.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

My first year at Washington was 1991. I suppose one could say it was a good year.

I was a Husky fan before coming to UW as a freshman. But I learned about Husky football that year. I mean, I truly learned about Husky football that season.

I learned that football was best played in the afternoon on the shores of Lake Washington.

I learned about the physics of sound waves crashing off of the Husky Stadium overhangs.

I learned that smallish receivers could put up seasons better than the eventual Heisman winner.

I learned that East Coast bias was really a thing.

Drew Bledsoe took revenge on UW in the 1992 “Snow Bowl” Apple Cup.

I learned that opposing quarterbacks see a lot of purple.

And I learned that the Apple Cup was just a thing that was pretty much on permanent display in the Washington athletic department offices.

When I finished watching UW thrash the Cougars for their third straight Apple Cup that season, I probably could not be convinced by anybody that UW was ever destined to lose another one of them.

Could you blame me? Billy Joe Hobert had thrown three TDs. Mark Brunell threw for one and ran for one. Steve Emtman was his typical, dominating self. The final score was 56-21. In fact, the Huskies had scored over 50 for the second straight Apple Cup. If you were to sum up the margins of victory in the three straight UW Apple Cup wins up to the that point, you’d be doing the kind of complex math that, in Pullman, is usually reserved only for WSU grad students.

In hindsight, I probably should have seen the chinks in the armor and better understood what it was that I was actually seeing. WSU played UW tough in that one. The Cougs, in fact, logged more yards and more points than any other opponent UW faced during that magical season. They even had a lead for a hot second in the game. It was a dominating result for UW, sure. But it was also contested.

The game meant something to the Cougs.

But did it mean anything to me? As I saw it, that game was simply a ticket punch on the way to the Rose Bowl and what I expected to be a National Championship. The Huskies were undefeated and destined to meet up with Michigan in a game featuring eventual Heisman trophy winner Desmond Howard (Steve Emtman finished fourth). Don James and his club were moving towards to bigger and better things. They were a 34 point favorite for crying out loud. The Apple Cup itself was just furniture and the game was just a game.

That was the context in which my bias about the Apple Cup was set.

Coug fans were able to tear down both Husky Stadium goal posts after Ryan Leaf led WSU to a convincing win in the 1997 Apple Cup.

Then 1992 happened. It wasn’t quite the same kind of year that 1991 was, although the Huskies were still one of the better teams in the all the land. When the time came to decide on which road game I wanted to take that year, the trip to Pullman seemed like one that was going to make for a great party.

It turns out that it was a great party ... for Coug fans. Drew Bledsoe had notions of redemption and revenge on his mind. In what was one of the classic Apple Cups of all-time - the famous “Snow Bowl” - Bledsoe led his Cougs to a resounding 42-23 victory.

Now that I think about it, resounding isn’t exactly the right word. The Cougs thumped the Huskies in a way that made UW look soft and slow. It was one of the most sobering moments that I’ve ever encountered as a fan, especially impressive given the copious amounts of Jaeger I had consumed while bearing witness in the visiting section of the stadium.

This is when my Apple Cup schizophrenia really began to set in. My ingrained bias was and continues to be that the Apple Cup is UW’s by birthright and that any contest for it should automatically be assumed will turn out in UW’s favor. Call it arrogant or whatever ... I’m not exactly proud of it. But feelings can never be right or wrong, they just exist.

My heart tells me something different. It reminds me that the Cougs, no matter how poorly coached or how undermanned, always internalize the lack of respect shown to them and channel that into bursts of high performance that often catches UW by surprise. The results of the Apple Cup can never be assumed.

That doesn’t mean that WSU often wins the Apple Cup. Or even that they sometimes win it. “Occasionally” might be the right word. Since that 1991 game, the Huskies have gone 16-8 against the Cougs. That’s a lofty record and it includes some significant blowouts. It’s especially impressive once you consider that UW lost four of five during the reign of he-who-shall-not-be-named.

This span of success is enough to make even the most heartened of Coug fans retreat back into their own living rooms to watch the game in peaceful obscurity rather than to face the potential embarrassment of yet another defeat. It also has a numbing effect on Huskies fans, luring them into the trap of thinking that the Apple Cup is just another step towards a bigger goal.

This is where I find myself as we enter today.

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State
Jake Browning helped the Huskies shred any hopes of WSU going to the Rose Bowl by throwing for 292 yards and 3 TDs in the 2016 Apple Cup.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

It is indeed ironic that it is the Cougars, not the Huskies, who are playing for stakes this evening. A win tonight and the Cougars claim their first ever North division title. They also would earn the right to a one-game showdown for the conference championship - a contest they’ve never played in for a title that they’ve not held an undisputed claim to since 1930 (the Cougs won championships in 1997 and 2002 after processing tiebreakers against UCLA and USC, respectively). UW, on the other hand, plays only for pride.

It is difficult for me to come to grips with the juxtaposition. I want desperately for this game to mean something more than what it does for the Huskies. Like many of you, I had my sights set on another PAC 12 championship and possibly a Rose Bowl berth as a playoff team. This was supposed to be “that” kind of season.

But I also find myself strangely intrigued by the notion that the wounded Dawgs could actually do what good rivals do: take away something rare and valuable from their cross-state nemesis.

Anthon St. Maarten wrote “Nothing stimulates our appetite for the simple joys of life more than the starvation caused by sadness or desperation.” Maybe this is one way for me to understand my conflicted feelings about today. Beating the Cougs today would be a simple joy - one that I have already felt many a season over - made emphatically sweeter given the dispiriting manner in which this season has unfolded.

The duality of the Apple Cup isn’t really a “thing” as much as it is a conflict that resides deep within my own sports psyche. It prevents me from recognizing the unique and strangely dramatic competitiveness that comes every year with this contest of in-state rivals. It makes me assume that wins should be automatic while making me dread the outcome of every single game. It is both maddening and macabre. Perhaps you too carry this burden with you.

The Huskies may be able to do something about this tonight. With a convincing win at home , they can restore the order of the universe and send a bitter WSU team to the Foster Farms bowl (or something of that ilk). They can also exorcise all of the disappointment and negative feelings being carried by both player and fan base alike about what, against most standards, has been a fantastic year of Husky football. It would be one of the biggest wins of the year and one of the more historic in the program’s legacy, even if it is just another Apple Cup.