One of more recent traditions in the Apple Cup is meaninglessness, unless you consider it meaningful to don your purple/crimson outfit and shout, “Booga-booga!” at your rival cohort.
The Huskies (6-5) already clinched a bowl berth, and certainly played as if there were no stakes Saturday in a mistake-pickled 38-21 loss at Oregon State (3-8) that was the low point of the Steve Sarkisian regime. Meanwhile on the same day, the Cougars removed the drama of playing for their own bowl bid this weekend when they made a hash of their final moments in a 30-27 overtime loss to Utah in snow-slobbered Pullman.
The Washington State loss was a shame, really. Now the main talk in the run-up to Saturday’s pseudo-titanic at the Clink is the fate of coaching futures. A popular topic, to be sure, but rarely an uplifting one. Sort of like replacing the furnace. You know it makes sense, but you have to crawl around among the basement’s vermin and cobwebs only to discover the change is more difficult and expensive than you imagined and still doesn’t fix the drafts around the windows. And didn’t you just do this a short while ago?
In the Palouse, the issue is directly with the head man, Paul Wulff. Even though the Cougars (2-6, 4-7) have improved from recent dreadfulness, progress is insufficient for some Cougars fans, who often think that Nick Saban or Urban Meyer are just waiting to be asked to coach at the next-best place to Moscow, IDA.
At Montlake (known to Google Maps as the Most Unwieldy Construction Site Since Machu Pichu), the issue is not with Sarkisian but his defensive coordinator, Nick Holt. The Huskies defense is surrendering 34.5 points and 430 yards a game (both 10th in the Pac-12) and appearing to get worse by the week, particularly against the Beavers, whose previously meager offensive output could be measured with nanotechnology and not digital scoreboards.
While the circumstances surrounding each man and his program are somewhat dissimilar, there are a couple of statistics shared by the Apple Cup automatic qualifiers that throws rude light on the primary source of despair over both programs.
Neither team can protect its quarterback, nor harass the opponents’ quarterbacks, thereby leaving a strategic hole through which the Orient Express could pass through either team.
The Huskies have managed 17 sacks, one more than the Cougars. The teams rank ninth and 10th in the Pac-12, well behind Oregon, the leader, at 33.
Worse is sacks surrendered, in which Washington has allowed a league-high 33, or one more than the Cougars. The three schools with the fewest happen to be the three best teams — USC (seven), Stanford (nine) and Oregon (10). The Huskies are also last in permitting third-down conversions (50 percent, 75 of 150).
The correlation between these stats and the teams’ current travails is direct. Not only is the QB sack typically the most dispiriting outcome for any play, it subjects the most important player to physical mayhem that Homer Simpson wouldn’t wish on Mr. Burns. Harm to the QB is what explains much of the meaninglessness of Saturday’s event.
The Cougars have lost two quarterbacks to injury, seasonal starter Jeff Tuel (broken collarbone) and freshman sensation Connor Halliday, who had his liver lacerated Saturday against Utah (a very atypical liver problem for a Washington State student). That leaves WSU with Marshall Lobbestahl, the noble senior from Oak Harbor who might be the Don Baylor of college football — hit by more pitches than almost anyone who lived to tell about it.
Washington has watched the steady decline in efficiency of QB Keith Price, owing almost strictly to leg injuries that, while not severe, accumulated enough pain so that he did not start against Oregon State.
When his replacement, redshirt freshman Nick Montana, was strip-sacked into a fourth-quarter fumble that the Beavs quickly turned into a touchdown, Sarkisian felt compelled to turn to Price to attempt to salvage a game in which UW trailed 31-14. Even though Price drove the Huskies to a touchdown, the risk of more harm to a cold, gimpy Price was high.
Sarkisian explained that Price no longer could take the punishment of a full game, which is not a surprise but a damning statement about the condition of his protection.
“One of the keys for Keith is the longevity of the game, and that was one of the reasons we decided not to start him last week,” Sarkisian said Monday. “When he has gone in and played banged up for 70 to 80 plays, the wear and tear of the game (gets to him in) the third and fourth quarters. We were trying to get him as healthy as we could.”
“Hopefully he can have a good week of work and really play and keep the stamina and strength of the knee to where he needs it to be to really play well into the second half.”
Hopefully. That’s the adverb that applies to both programs regarding their biggest shortcoming: QB health. All Sarkisian and Wulff can do at this point is hope. The recruiting shortcomings that have left both squads alarmingly free of quality line talent also have left vulnerable their biggest assets.
Holt is more fortunate than Wulff in that he is responsible for only half the team. But it is his half of the team that is primarily responsible for forcing the Huskies to play from behind and throw the ball way too much for Price’s health.
Against OSU, the defense did pick up three turnovers, but the offense has been sufficiently battered (Price) that they didn’t get a single point out of the opportunities.
“When you turn those turnovers into points,” he said, “Oregon State is playing from behind instead of playing ahead. Maybe they try a little harder and now we can create even more turnovers. It goes hand in hand.
Ultimately, you want to get off the field and not let people extend drives. You gotta pressure the quarterback and we haven’t been able to do a good enough job of that.”
Price’s limp will attest to that, as well as Tuel’s collarbone and Halliday’s liver. The Apple Cup outcome may well decide who gets another year to guard the ship’s treasure, and who walks the plank.