Washington-Washington State playing for pride in Apple Cup
It's been a dismal season for 1-10 Washington State and 0-10 Washington
Fox Sports will nationally televise the 101st installment of the rivalry
"Guys are preparing hard," said UW's Mesphin Forrester. "It's the Apple Cup!
My mission, had I chosen to accept it, was to head north and west, to the target-rich environment of the 2008 Apple Cup, where the only thing worse than the puns -- "Full of Worms," and "Crapple Cup" blared two recent headlines -- would be ... the football.
Good news for those in the habit of slowing down to have a leisurely gander at car accidents: Fox Sports has made the Apple Cup, which kicks off in Pullman at noon, its national TV game. In what amounts to one more insult in a season replete with them, the 1-10- Washington State Cougars are 4 1/2-point underdogs to the 0-10 Washington Huskies, who have not won a game in a calendar year. This meeting of misbegotten squads reminds me of the 1983 Repus Bowl (that's Super, spelled backward), a battle of the 1-11 Houston Oilers and the 1-11 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A timeless passage crafted by my former colleague Steve Wulf applies to this Saturday's Pileup on the Palouse:
"Yes, this was the Small One, the battle of the beatens, the movable object meeting the resistible force. There were only tomorrows. When these two teams get together, nothing can happen. This game was for a marble."
If it were a movie, the '08 Apple Cup would be Son of Frankenstein, the logical heir to what has stood, for the last quarter century, as the worst Division I football game ever played in the Pacific Northwest. Contested in Old Testament rains, the 1983 Oregon-Oregon State game was played to a 0-0- tie. It lives in infamy as the Toilet Bowl.
At least those two teams combined for four wins. Unable to handle the prosperity of its lone victory this season, a 48-9 decision over I-AA Portland State, the Cougs surrendered 63, 28, 66, 69, 58, 59 and 31 points in their subsequent seven losses.
The news hasn't been all bad. In a 69-0 whitewash at the hands of USC -- the day Washington State's 280-game scoring streak came to an end -- the Cougars blocked an extra point. They can build on that!
The truth, of course, is that the news has pretty much been all bad. The Cougars have been so compromised by serious injuries to two of their quarterbacks that coach Paul Wulff resorted to holding open tryouts for the position.
The Huskies lost star quarterback Jake Locker to a broken thumb at the end of September; earlier this week, lame duck head coach Ty Willingham announced that Locker is done for the year.
My mission was to "have fun" with the '08 Crapple Cup, to make sport of the efforts of the Huskies and Cougs. Because, you know, they're losers. They have it coming, right?
And then my phone rang, and it was Mesphin Forrester, Washington's fifth-year cornerback, a guy I remembered from last season when he returned an interception 54 yards for a touchdown against USC. He was coming off the practice field. He'd gotten the message that I wanted to talk to some players. I could hear voices behind him -- loud, energetic, hopeful, upbeat voices. What was up with that?
"Well, yeah, we're 0-10," he said. "But there hasn't been much of a drop-off [in effort and intensity]. Guys are still in the film room. Guys are preparing really hard. We had a great practice today, and we're feeling really confident going into this game. It's the Apple Cup!"
I asked him what kept him going as the futility mounted and the fans turned on the team and head coach got canned. He pointed out, first of all, that plenty of Huskies fans haven't bailed on the squad. Then he talked about athletic pride. "I still have faith in my abilities," Forrester said. "I'm keeping my head up, telling other guys to keep their heads up, reminding them we need to go out and fight every week."
I flashed to an old Springsteen lyric:
At the end of every hard-earned day/
There is an upside to adversity, as tight end Huskies Michael Gottlieb pointed out to me. "As things have gotten tougher and tougher," he said, "if forces you to face the question: How am I going to keep going? I see this as an opportunity to build character, to fight through tough times."
Where did he and his teammates find the will to study film, lift weights, strap it on for practice every day?
"To be honest," he told me, "we look forward to practice. The stands are empty, there's nothing hanging over our heads. We're just out there having fun."
Just when I was ready to give up on these guys -- didn't they know they were supposed to be miserable and funereal? -- Gottlieb threw me a bone.
"Honestly, just watching football on TV is tough," he said. "Not just because you hear negative things said about our program. We've become conditioned to that. Just hearing the announcers praise other people ... this may sound wrong, but it hurts to see other people have success, you know what I mean?"
That's more like it. What else hurts? The pity of outsiders. He would almost prefer criticism to pity. "When I'm around some of my [non-football] friends, they go out of their way to avoid the subject," said Gottlieb. "I can tell they don't want to bring it up. For some reason, that hurts.
"When you break down our game film, it's a mistake here, a mistake there, a bunch of mistakes in sequence. But it's not like the effort's not there."
At the end of every hard-earned day ...
"We want to win. We're dying to win," said Gottlieb. "We come out to practice every Tuesday hungry as hell. We want to fix what's wrong and get a win."
People find some reason to believe.
Said Gottlieb: "This could be the week."