The series always had a geopolitical thing going for it—the radical professionals—I from Seattle (they drive their yachts right up to the stadium!) against the conservative farmers from Spokane (they drive their tractors right up to the stadium!). So that aspect is good, even if it's not necessarily true. A rivalry needs that kind of broad stereotyping to survive, especially when you can't get players or coaches to make so much as a peep during game week to promote genuine hostility.
These days it's all about caution, about not saying something that will end up on the other guy's bulletin board. When Washington traveled to Washington State last Saturday for the annual Apple Cup game, you would have thought it was a nonconference season opener. There was more frost in the air (and snow on the ground) than there was excitement. This partly had to do with the rivals' status. The Huskies were 9-1, ranked sixth in the country and hoping for a Rose Bowl berth—or better—while the Cougars were 4-6 and hoping for...the Apple Cup. The lack of bite in the Apple also was a consequence of programs so afraid to offend that they turned a traditionally wild rivalry into a peace demonstration.
The best they could do for Apple Cup week? Well, Ryan Leaf, who had quarter-backed Washington State to its last victory in the series, in 1997, wrote a fax urging on the Cougars against the hated Huskies, in supposedly colorful language. Unfortunately for him and Washington State (and confirming his reputation for thoughtful-ness), Leaf left the original lying in a San Diego Chargers' office, where it was found by a Washington alumnus, who did no more than send it on to Seattle.
Meanwhile the Cougars had photos of Huskies coach Rick Neuheisel's mug taped on every locker. What had Neuheisel said? He said, before immediately soft-pedaling, "We're still in the national title hunt." That's trash talk? Perhaps Americans are too polite to hold these rivalry games anymore.
Or perhaps, as a football team, Washington was too good for one this year. The Huskies had bigger fruit to pick than Washington State apples, and they made short work of the Cougars, scoring early and often in a 51-3 rout. "It's a big rivalry game, don't get me wrong," said Washington receiver Todd Elstrom, whose sister attends the enemy school and whose parents graduated from it. (Were there any other stories like that during rivalry week? About a hundred.) "But this game had huger implications than the Apple Cup. Washington State turned out to be one of those teams that was just in our way."
The Cougars' season was ending, one way or another. It had been a frustrating what-if year for Washington State, in which it lost all three of its overtime games and a promising sophomore quarterback, Jason Gesser, who broke his left leg on Nov. 4 against Oregon. All the Cougars had going was the rivalry. But they downplayed even that. Indeed, no Washington State player has promised an Apple Cup victory since '97, when wide receiver Chris Jackson mouthed off a week before the big game and then was ordered by coach Mike Price to get up at the crack of dawn one day and run until he dropped—and issue apologies to Huskies on top of that!
So one team was too preoccupied with larger issues, the other too preoccupied with small ones. The fans, who presumably aren't afraid of a little freezing weather (last Saturday wasn't like that really cold game day in Seattle in 1985, when antifreeze had to be poured into the toilets), were a scattered presence, buying only 33,010 tickets to 37,600-seat Martin Stadium and leaving pretty quickly.
Who could blame them, the way the game went? Washington quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, who had led the Huskies to eight come-from-behind victories this year, got Washington up and running early, throwing for three touchdowns in the first half. No come-from-behind necessary. Then, as if a 27-0 lead weren't enough, Neuheisel added some halftime motivation. He'd learned that Oregon had lost to Oregon State, giving the Huskies a Rose Bowl berth if they won. Neuheisel reminded his players that junior cornerback Curtis Williams, who had suffered a spinal cord injury in the game against Stanford three weeks earlier and remains completely immobile, had told him, "Make sure those guys know I want a [ Rose Bowl] ring."
Washington had been reacting to Williams's injury anyway. The Huskies were devastated when it happened and let a 24-6 lead against the Cardinal dissolve before prevailing 31-28. They've been wearing a patch bearing Williams's jersey number, 25. Neuheisel probably didn't need to remind any of his players about Williams's wishes. "We think about that all the time," said Tuiasosopo. "It reminds us why we play, the specialness of playing together, of having teammates around you."
The Huskies now move on to another special experience, one that Neuheisel also has been selling ever since he got to Washington two years ago. "Now," said Neuheisel, "they get to enjoy one of the great spectacles in sport." Neuheisel, while a middling quarterback at UCLA, played in two of those Pasadena spectacles, as a holder in his first, as an unlikely star in his second. He's the only Rose Bowl Hall of Famer coaching today.