By Brent Stecker
Washington State is never lacking for motivation when Apple Cup week rolls around. But when Friday's 12:30 p.m. kickoff at Husky Stadium arrives, there will be a lot more on the line for the Cougars than in previous seasons.
The Cougars (6-5 overall, 4-4 Pac-12) are bowl eligible for the first time since 2006, but they may still need a win over the rival Huskies (7-4, 4-4) to ensure a bowl berth. The program knows all too well how fickle bowl eligibility can be – Washington State didn't get a bowl trip in that 2006 season, so it hasn't played in a postseason game since 2003.
It's very present in the Cougars' minds how important a seventh win would be.
The Cougars have clinched bowl eligibility, but beating the Huskies would give Washington State its first season with at least seven wins since 2003. (AP)
That's not to say the importance of the rivalry is diminished, however.
"We're more so focused on it being the Apple Cup than the bowl aspect of it," Bucannon said.
Even though the Huskies are favored, the Cougars have a lot of momentum entering the game. They're on a two-game winning streak, and they also have an edge thanks to last year's improbable 31-28 comeback overtime win over Washington in Pullman.
"Last year we tried to set the standard that we're not gonna lose to the Huskies any more, and we're gonna do everything we can to continue that this year," center Elliott Bosch said Monday.
Coach Mike Leach said last year's Apple Cup win was something of turning point for Washington State.
"I think it accelerated our offseason. I think it started to reveal some of the potential that our team had," he said.
It appears that the win had a significant effect on the players who played in the game last year, as the tradition now weighs heavily on the upperclassmen.
"It's never just another game, especially with the Apple Cup," Bucannon said. "It's just a lot bigger than just a game. It's tradition. It's something that's been going on for so long. It's not just us playing out there. It's us representing previous players that played in the game. It's a lot bigger than just us, and I feel like everybody in that locker room understands that."
This version of the Apple Cup could be shaping up to be a classic. The Cougars' air raid offense led by quarterback Connor Halliday will see a very tough matchup against a Huskies defense that ranks 41st in the nation with just 24 points allowed per game.
Leach, who will be coaching just his second Apple Cup, said he's very impressed with what he's seen out of Washington.
"I think they were a good team last year, and I think they're a good team this year. I think they're a good solid unit," Leach said. "The biggest thing you see with Washington is there are no real weaknesses. They're just steady at every point. ... They don't have one thing that jumps out at you. There's not one single thing. It's more just that they're all steady players and play together good."