Apple Cup forecasters: A split decision

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by Steve Rudman & Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on November 24, 2011 at 1:00 PM

STEVE: The focus of the 104th Apple Cup should be on the players and the game, but I think the main storyline is the coaches, Steve Sarkisian of Washington and Paul Wulff of Washington State. Sarkisian's team is in danger of turning a nice 5-1 start into a horrid 1-5 finish, and Wulff, 9-39 in four years in Pullman, is probably coaching for his job. Since a tie is out of the question, one of these guys is about to face a serious career setback.

ART: One of the reasons we like sports is because we like to think of them as simple, at least relative to our complicated lives. As Rick Neuheisel famously put it: "Scoreboard, baby!" But as the Slickster was prone to do, he overstated things. The collapses that both programs experienced a few years ago were deep (remember 0-12 and 1-11?). But fans don't want to hear about layers and subtleties. They just want something to go right on Saturdays in the fall, and when they don't, it's time to fire the person they think is responsible. The coaches don't dare say, as Tyrone Willingham did, that some of his players weren't good enough. But he spoke the truth, and it's still true today. The teams are full of flaws, and need more time to fix the problems and reach the Pac-12's top tier. But the big money in college sports has the unintended consequence of drying up patience for the long rebuild.

STEVE: The worst that can happen to Sarkisian, if the Huskies lose, is that he absorbs a serious image hit. For WSU, it would be tough to bring back Wulff for a fifth season if the Cougars lose, even though most everyone acknowledges that his team has made progress despite a lot of injuries.

ART: If WSU wins, AD Bill Moos is going to have a tougher call on Wulff's future. A loss and he's done. The belief has settled in among most Cougars partisans that Wulff is in over his head as a Pac-12 head coach (as were Jim Lambright and Keith Gilbertson at Washington). Once that image is there, it's hard to shake. At Montlake, Sarkisian personally has a lot of rope left, but the defense's failure to improve after three years under coordinator Nick Holt means Holt is probably down to a final shot to take pressure off his pal Sark to make the tough personal decision to fire him. Remember, the Huskies still need money to finish the stadium project, and some boosters love to turn their potential donations into ransom.

STEVE: As far as Holt goes, the question comes down to whether the Huskies can tackle  better against Washington State than they did at Oregon State, one of lousiest tackling performances I've seen by a UW team. Even Sarkisian mentioned that this week -- that the Huskies simply give up way too many big plays. Whether that's a result of poor fundamentals (Holt's fault) or a lack of talent (not Holt's fault), Holt's defense needs to step it up, or he might be gone.

ART: Regarding the UW defense, the game that blew me away was Oregon, and how poorly Washington tackled relative to the Ducks D. Oregon was much faster to the ball -- no surprise there -- and always wrapped up in the open field. Complicating defensive life for both teams is the lines aren't very capable of rushing the passer. The way OSU's Sean Mannion stood unhurried in the pocket . . . wow. WSU QB Marshall Lobbestael had to have looked at the game film and said, "I'm going to be John Elway for a day!"

STEVE: The Huskies have made a lot of quarterbacks look like John Elway, if not Peyton Manning. But if Washington has an edge, beyond Chris Polk, it's that Keith Price's knee, to use Sarkisian's words, "is back to normal." This gives Washington the opportunity to keep its offense on the field and limit the defense's exposure to Lobbestael and receiver Marquess Wilson, probably the best deep threat in the conference.

ART: If Price can get close to his early season effectiveness, UW will control the game. But one hard hit on his legs, and Nick Montana will be back in with his freshman confidence in tatters after the shaky start vs. OSU. He's probably one tipped pass for a pick from an emotional letdown.

STEVE: I agree. If Price plays anything like he did earlier, Washington will win by a couple of touchdowns. And I have a feeling that Polk will go for 200 yards. The Cougars have never been able to contain him (130 yards two years ago, 284 last year).

ART: The Huskies have been increasingly mistake-prone as the season progresses -- penalties, broken defensive coverages, tentative play-calling. And the Apple Cup has a fun history of freak plays and improbable heroes and goats. I like the game-breaking ability of Wilson and Jared Karstetter to do what they can to save the job of Wulff, who seems to have retained the players' support. Upset special: Washington State 38, Washington 37, with PK Erik Folk wide right at :00.

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