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Matt Calkins

Matt Calkins: Huskies could turn memorable season into an unforgettable one with an Apple Cup win

Here's the elaborate breakdown from Husky Stadium Saturday: Colorado is awful.

We all knew that going in. Colorado knew that going in. A team whose only win of the season came via overtime against Cal — which itself has just two conference wins — wasn't going to upset 15th ranked Washington in Seattle.

The Huskies cooked the Buffaloes 54-7, no significant injuries occurred and the Week 11 formality went as expected.

But what that formality set up is a Pac-12 finale between UW and Washington State that sits as one of the more intriguing Apple Cup matchups in recent memory. It doesn't seem a potential Rose Bowl trip is on the line as it was in 2018, when the Huskies-Cougs winner would advance to the Pac-12 championship. Nor is a College Football Playoff spot up for grabs, as it was in 2016 when Washington secured a spot a week after knocking off WSU.

What this game features is two programs — both of which endured tumult last season for entirely different reasons — re-established and battling for state supremacy. It's everything we love about this sport; everything we love about this tradition.

"It's like Christmas morning to me that this week is ahead of us," said Huskies senior offensive lineman Jaxson Kirkland. "Of course, after last year — we'll never forget that. It's an extremely motivating week."

The Huskies (9-2, 6-2 in the Pac-12) will travel to Pullman as one of the hotter teams in the country, likely still glowing from their win over then sixth-ranked Ducks two Saturdays earlier. To be in this position after last season isn't unfathomable, but seemed highly improbable before kickoff in Week 1.

This is a program that went 4-8 in coach Jimmy Lake's first (almost) full season in 2021, when the former defensive coordinator was fired with two games remaining. It was the worst season the Huskies endured since going 0-12 in 2008.

The adversity prompted the hiring of former Fresno State coach Kalen DeBoer, who lured quarterback Michael Penix Jr. from Indiana — and suddenly you have a top-15 program boasting the leading passer in the country. Now a bowl as prestigious as the Cotton is in play for Washington.

DeBoer said that last year's Apple Cup loss was one of the first things he mentioned to his players upon getting the job. He noted to reporters after Saturday's win that the Apple Cup trophy does not lie with the Huskies right now. But ...

"We're playing for a lot of stuff — not just for that (Apple Cup) trophy."

Meanwhile, with Washington State you have a team whose former coach Nick Rolovich was fired last year for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. And yet the Cougs still managed to put together seven wins while snapping their seven-game losing streak to Washington. This year, they sit at 7-4 overall, 4-4 in the Pac-12, and have won their past three games — all by double-digits.

It might not seem as if WSU has as much to play for as Washington, given how the latter can still put together a 10-win season and sneak into a New Year's Six game. But in many ways, it's just as significant. A win would A) mark an improvement from last season with an eighth victory, further validating Jake Dickert's promotion to head coach, B) give the Cougs a winning record in conference — no easy task — and C) establish WSU as the class of the state with consecutive victories over Washington for the first time since 2008.

It's a national game for a reason ... with no predictable outcome.

Even though the game is in Pullman, oddsmakers will likely give the edge to Washington considering its record and win over Oregon. But remember, the Ducks needed a double-digit, fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Cougs earlier in the season — and had quarterback Bo Nix not gotten hurt late vs. Washington, the Huskies might not have escaped with their 37-34 win Eugene.

Flip those Oregon results and these programs have the same record. And when you consider the antagonism Washington State has toward Washington given their rare success vs. their rivals — coupled with the vengeance the Huskies would like to employ after a WSU flag was planted on their field last season — the game should be as emotional as it will be physical.

"Right now, we're going to celebrate this win, but tomorrow we're back for some revenge," Huskies receiver Jalen McMillan said. "The Apple Cup we take seriously."

Huskies defensive lineman Jeremiah Martin wasn't quite sure how seriously the Apple Cup was when he first transferred to Washington from Texas A&M in 2021. Then he showed up in a burgundy doo rag on his first day at Washington. Teammates told him to take it off immediately.

"We hate the color red here," Martin said they told him. "After that they gave me a whole lecture about it ... that's when I learned."

Doesn't take long to learn about the significance of the Apple Cup around here. It's been a memorable season for both programs. A win Saturday could make it an unforgettable one.

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