It’s a yearly tradition unlike any other that brings together and separates families for a few hours on Black Friday. The Washington State Cougars (6-5, 5-3) from the wheat fields of Pullman travel 287.6 miles west to Seattle to play the Washington Huskies (4-7, 3-5) under the big city lights that reflect off the Puget Sound.
It’s been 728 days since the two football programs last met. COVID complications kept head coaches Jimmy Lake and Nick Rolovich from playing in their first Apple Cups in 2020 so they had to postpone their rivalry debuts for this season. Neither of them would even make it to Black Friday as Nick Rolovich was fired on October 19th and Jimmy Lake on November 14th. This leaves interim coaches Bob Gregory and Jake Dickert to duke it out in the Interim Apple Cup.
The 2021 Washington Huskies
Going into the 2021 season, the Huskies were a popular pick to win the Pac-12. They had a favorable conference schedule with their toughest games of the year, Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA, being at home. The AP Top 25 put the Huskies at 20th in the preseason poll. At worst, this team was supposed to win at least eight games. They had too much talent and a promising new head coach to do anything besides compete for a Pac-12 title. What could go wrong?
Washington wouldn’t recover from this devastating loss. They would lose in the big house to Michigan the following week 31-10 before stomping Arkansas State 52-3. They would escape Cal in overtime at home to get back to .500. A pair of one possession losses to Oregon State, for the first time in a decade, and UCLA would come next. The losses were followed by a pair of one possession wins against Arizona and Stanford put the Huskies at 4-4 going into a ‘non-rivalry game due to academic prowess’ against No. 4 Oregon. The Huskies had a real shot at turning their season around if they could upset the Ducks. Trailing by eight with about two minutes to go, the Huskies would sum up their whole season in one play. They elected to punt the ball away. But they would snap it over the head of their punter for a safety as Oregon would win 26-16.
Washington would lose their next two games to Arizona State and Colorado to eliminate the once dark-horse Rose Bowl contenders from earning bowl eligibility.
Meet the Huskies
Washington will be deciding between two quarterbacks to start on Friday night. Former four-star QB Dylan Morris or five-star freshman Sam Huard with sources saying they’ve been splitting reps in practice. Morris has started every game with 2,458 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions on 60.6% completion percentage. Ask any Huskies fan and they’ll tell you how much Morris has struggled. Especially in November as he has thrown three touchdowns and four interceptions in three games.
In the backfield is a plethora of talented backs led by Sean McGrew. McGrew missed the past two games with an injury but has 107 carries for 431 yards and eight trips into the end zone. Chances are he’ll be a no-go for Friday. Cameron Davis has done the bulk of carrying in McGrew’s place. Davis carried 18 times for 67 yards and a touchdown against ASU but struggled heavily against Colorado with only 29 yards. Kamari Pleasant also gets in on the fun with 49 carries for 274 yards on the year. UW’s running game has struggled in the back half of the season. According to College Football Data, Washington sits just 11th in the Pac-12 in PPA (Predicted Points Added) in rushing plays between weeks eight and 12.
Whether it is Morris or Huard slinging the pigskin on Friday night, either one will benefit well from multiple weapons on the outside. A quartet of young wide receivers and a pair of tight ends lead the UW aerial attack. Jalen McMillan, Rome Odunze and Taj Davis are all listed as 6’1 or taller freshmen, each with at least 26 receptions and over 320 receiving yards. Terrell Bynum is the veteran of the group as a junior but has missed the past two games. TE Cade Otton is another player who has caught the injury bug. Otton has 28 receptions for 250 yards and his TE sidekick Devin Culp has 18 receptions for 213 yards.
The defense carries this Washington team. They sit #1 in college football in passing yards allowed by far, only allowing 1475 passing yards. The next closest team is Cincinnati and Georgia, two top four teams in the CFP rankings, with 1710 and 1746 passing yards allowed respectively. For a more in-depth look at this Washington defense, I turn to my friend and UW-Tacoma student, Luke Anderson.
In-Depth Look: Featuring Luke Anderson
In the secondary, Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon have been the standouts at cornerback. Both McDuffie and Gordon are projected early rounders in the NFL Draft this spring. UW legacy freshman LB Carson Bruener has earned his spot in this vaunted defense as of late. DT Voi Tunuufi is also seeing an increase in snaps. He’s been a key piece lately to causing pressure by flashing some great pass-rush potential.
Offensively, Rome Odunze has been the go-to receiver. At 6’3 200 lbs., he is hard to bring down so they like to give him the ball on screen plays where he can find himself in some one-on-one matchups with the ball. The interior OL is the biggest question. The guards (Ulumoo) Ale and (Henry) Bainivalu and center Luke Wattenberg, have struggled and get beat by speed a lot. The Huskies have been more pass heavy with Junior Adams calling plays. He’s been calling more trick plays like reverses, jet sweeps, etc.
The storyline to watch is the QB situation. As a freshman, it became clear from week one that UW wanted to redshirt Huard as they chose to roll with covid-redshirt freshman Dylan Morris. NCAA rules state that a player can use a redshirt if the player plays in four games or less. Huard has appeared in only three games (Arkansas State, Arizona, and Arizona State) meaning that he can play on Friday and still be redshirt eligible.
Seemingly everybody knows what you’re talking about when you say the two words that divide households from Cape Flattery to Clarkston and everywhere else in the world a UW or WSU alum lives:
The schools couldn’t be more opposite despite being both being in the Evergreen State. It’s two different cultures entirely. UW lies on the Puget Sound under the shadow of the Seattle skyline, just a few miles from downtown. Evergreen trees and Mt. Rainier paint the backdrop of the Pacific Northwest’s largest university. WSU is a land-grant university that lies in middle of some wheat fields an hour and a half drive away from the nearest large city, Spokane. Isolated from any other civilization besides it’s fellow classmates, it creates one of the best college town feels in the nation. It’s the big city versus the college town.
It’s often you will see those house-divided flags and doors mats around the state. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, life-long friends, neighbors, coworkers, divided by their allegiance to their alma maters. Each bringing their own opinion for why their school’s culture is correct and the other is completely wrong. It’s a mindset that gets passed down and instilled into the minds of the young from generation to generation. Kids put into a crimson or purple shirt on from the time they’re brought home. Houses without any crimson or purple to be found. Bragging rights that will last you 365 days a year are on the line every Black Friday.
This week, I scowered the internet to go find as many lines as I could for this game. Most places have the Cougs anywhere from a 1 to 1.5-point favorite. ESPN says -1 for WSU but has UW as the Power Football Index favorites at a 63.7% chance to win.
Keys to Success
This Washington secondary is legit. Their run defense isn’t legit. Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh need to run the football early and often. Wearing the defense down will open up select opportunities in the passing game. de Laura will NEED to be smart and careful with the ball in the passing game. He can’t let the energy of the rivalry get to his head and try to force passes against this secondary. Take what the defense gives you.
Stop the run. Dylan Morris isn’t scary by any means. Dare him to throw the football. Create some takeaways off of his mistakes. Prevent the big plays and force them to make tough decisions on 3rd down. Tackling is also going to be key. The Huskies have many weapons on the offensive end that are hard to bring down and can break away for a huge gain if the Cougs are slow to bring them down.
It never seems to matter how good WSU may be or how bad UW may be, every year when Black Friday rolls around, you can’t help but feel very nervous. This year is a prime example. A 6-5 WSU team should realistically be able to beat a 4-7 UW team that has losses to Montana and Colorado. But because of prior experiences and how well UW matches up against WSU every year, there’s a reason places are weary to give the Cougs more than a point favorite.
For Washington, there isn’t much on the line here for them other than taking some momentum into the offseason with a rivalry win. They have nothing to lose, nothing to play for other than to play spoiler and continue to torment their rival.
For Washington State, this means everything. We’ve already discussed plenty how this senior class deserves the world for their resilience. They’ve never gotten the chance to beat their rival. Now they have a shot with their rival at their most vulnerable. A rivalry win that would send this senior class off in the best way possible. A chance to finally end put an end to that damn empty trophy case they’ve had to walk by every day since they took their first visit to Pullman.
Win the game. Win the quarter. Win the drive. Win the down. Win the snap. Win the victory. Win the day.
5:00 p.m. kickoff on Fox Sports One. Husky Stadium will be the location.