Even in historically bad year, Apple Cup matters to players and fans

Upon being hired as Washington State's head football coach, Paul Wulff, a former Cougars offensive lineman, announced to a friendly audience that he didn't care much for the color purple.

Of course, everyone knew exactly what he was talking about.

The Washington Huskies wear purple. That means the color isn't welcome on the eastern side of the state.

"That is a battle that we will win," Wulff said. "We are going to go after those guys, and we're going to attack them.

"Dawgs hunt and bark, but Cougars fight and kill."

Perhaps he was told about what Washington coach Tyrone Willingham had said in his first meeting with reporters in 2004: "It's time for the University of Washington to return to being the Dawgs. As I understand it, that is a vicious animal."

There hasn't been much fighting, hunting, barking or viciousness from either program this year. The Huskies and Cougars meet Saturday in Pullman for the 101st time with one victory between them and none versus Football Bowl Subdivision competition. Willingham was forced to resign, and Wulff's inaugural season already has many WSU fans grumbling.

Yet that doesn't mean the game won't be fought fiercely and followed passionately.

"I don't think it's ever been much about the records," Wulff said. "I don't know that it ever will be."

Washington is big-city Seattle. It's an urban university with a huge endowment and a massive stadium. It's the "have" school.

Washington State is the rolling hills of the Palouse. It's rural and isolated. The team plays in a small stadium. The student body is known for its tendency to brave sub-zero temperatures to find the best party.

The Huskies lead the series 64-30-6, but the Cougars have won three of the past four games, a run that followed a six-game losing streak.

The past six games have been decided by eight or fewer points. And a couple of those games saw near-riots on the postgame field.

In 2002, after four hours and nine minutes and three overtimes, the Huskies won on a controversial call, 29-26, in Pullman, and Washington State fans pelted the field with bottles and other debris for several minutes.

This is not congenial rivalry.

Even in a historically bad year for both programs, it matters to the players and their very different fan bases.

It might matter even more in a year when there's nothing else to celebrate.

"It means for the year that bragging rights are on the line -- that you can wear that purple and gold shirt to work, and that other guy will kind of find his way out of the room," Willingham said.

Because that guy hates purple. Or crimson.

Ted Miller is ESPN.com's Pac-10 football blogger. He can be reached at tedmillerespn@gmail.com.