- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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When rivals meet, you'd love to say throw out the records. That nothing else matters.
But for Washington State, that's not the case in this year's Apple Cup. Of course, a win over the rival Huskies would be nice. It would be more than nice. It'd be huge. But even that probably wouldn't help wipe the slate clean of what has been a disappointing season for the Cougars.
"We need to try to win the game just for the sake of winning a game and playing good football," said Washington State head coach Mike Leach, whose team hasn't won since Week 3 (Sept. 14).
Since that time, Washington State has lost to sub-.500 teams like Colorado, California and Utah. During the eight-game skid, the Cougars have been outscored, on average, 37-19. They've given up 40-plus points in their last three games.
On the Western half of the state, things are perkier. After braving a very difficult first-half schedule -- from which the Huskies emerged 3-3 -- Steve Sarkisian & Co. have won four in a row (including a win over then-No. 7 Oregon State) and are on the verge of the school's first eight-win season in more than a decade.
Even though the circumstances for both clubs are different, Sarkisian said his guys still recognize the significance of the game. If there's apathy for the rivalry outside the program, it doesn't mirror what's happening inside it.
"That feeling isn't the one that's coming out of our locker room or our team meeting room, that's for sure," Sarkisian said. "We're pretty pumped about this opportunity. We always embrace the Apple Cup and the opportunity to play against Washington State. It's a great rivalry. It's one that's over 100 years old now. It divides households. We're excited about the opportunity. It's a nice opportunity for us to potentially finish our season 8-4, something we haven't done in our tenure since we've been here. It hasn't been done here in over a decade. We're excited about it."
Sarkisian is also excited about the way his offense has clicked over the last month. Part of that is a much easier back-end schedule. In fact, after facing seven teams that are headed to the postseason, the Huskies have closed the year against the four Pac-12 teams that aren't bowl eligible -- Cal, Utah, Colorado and now Washington State.
Still, he's pleased that quarterback Keith Price is finally starting to return to form. He's completed at least 70 percent of his throws the past two weeks and has seven touchdowns and zero interceptions over that stretch.
"I feel like it's been coming here for a few weeks now," Sarkisian said of his quarterback. "I thought he played a nice game against Utah. I thought he performed very well last week against Colorado. It's unfortunate he had a couple of turnovers against Cal because he actually played pretty well in that game and played relatively well against Oregon State. I think that he's been really coming along in the last month. I think a lot of that has to do with what's going on around him and the continuity we've developed up front with the offensive line. The consistent running game that we've been getting out of Bishop Sankey that's allowed us to play-action pass a bit more than we were able to earlier in the year."
Sankey has been Washington's most pleasant surprise this season. Once thought to be a by-committee back heading into the season, he became the featured runner when Jesse Callier went down for the year in the opener.
As the season progressed, Sankey became a much stronger runner. He's averaging 163 yards on the ground his last three games with four touchdowns.
"I'm really proud of Bishop," Sarkisian said. "I don't know if there is another player on our roster -- if you watch us play against San Diego State Sept. 1 and then now heading into our 12th ball game of the year -- who has made more strides, who has improved their game, not only physically on the field with his ability to run the football and his ability to break tackles at the second level, but also mentally. His confidence has risen. He's got a real sense of belief in his own ability and what he's capable of doing. I'm very proud of Bishop and the season that he's having. He's had a great one so far."
Regardless of what's happening in Seattle, Leach said it's important for his squad to show improvement -- regardless of the opponent and what kind of success they might be enjoying. It's an opportunity for his group to get a little confidence after a year that's sorely lacked it.
"I think they are already motivated," Leach said. "I think the biggest thing is focus on our effort, our work, our development. They already are motivated. We don't need to add to the motivation level. We just need to worry about what we can do instead of trying to do too much."
16hCraig Haubert and Tom Luginbill
16hCraig Haubert and Tom Luginbill