More than just bragging rights on the line in 2015 Apple Cup

With postseason implications at stake for both Washington and Washington State today, the 108th Apple Cup is sure to be filled with plenty of drama.

Even though they are seven-point underdogs, the No. 20 Cougars (8-3, 6-2 Pac-12) are no doubt having a better season than their west-side counterparts. WSU is ranked for the first time in nine years and has won more games than it has since the beginning of the Bill Doba era.

The Cougars are on a three-game winning streak – a missed field goal against then-No. 8 Stanford shy of seven – and are still in contention to appear in one of the Pac-12’s premier bowl games, such as the Holiday or Alamo Bowl. If they were they to win out, WSU would reach double-digit victories for the first time since Doba’s Cougs won the 2003 Holiday Bowl.

However, the Cougars will no doubt be at a disadvantage today if redshirt sophomore quarterback and Burlsworth Trophy finalist Luke Falk can’t play. Falk – who was on track to break almost every single-season passing record in school history – suffered a concussion in the third quarter of Saturday’s 27-3 victory over Colorado after fans watched his head slam into the Martin Stadium turf.

In typical Mike Leach fashion, the Cougar head coach has remained either silent or sarcastic in commenting on the injury, however, WSU Athletic Director Bill Moos talked about Falk’s status on his radio show Monday.

“We’re hopeful (Falk) can play (in the Apple Cup) but we don’t know yet,” Moos said on Cougar Calls. “We’re not going to take a chance on a concussion.”

Even with the caution Moos said the team was taking with Falk’s injury, the AD said the quarterback was “doing really well.” In an interview with The Seattle Times this week, Dennis Garcia, medical director of WSU’s Health & Wellness Services and head team physician, could not state specifically how Falk was progressing, but assured he was going through standard protocol, and that more information would be released sometime this morning.

If Falk is deemed inactive for today’s contest, redshirt freshman Peyton Bender will take the QB1 snaps. In his fourth appearance for the Cougs, Bender showed potential, throwing for 133 yards with a touchdown and an interception on 59 percent passing in relief of Falk on Saturday.

“I thought he played good, very impressive first drive where I thought he moved the ball pretty well,” Leach said of Bender’s performance against Colorado. “I thought he did a good job leading and moving the ball, all things considered.”

On the other side of the Cascades, the Huskies (5-6, 3-5 Pac-12) are fighting to scrape out their fourth Pac-12 win of the season to gain bowl eligibility.

Led offensively by freshman quarterback Jake Browning – the first true freshman QB to start a season opener for Washington – expectations were fairly low for the Huskies this season as the team graduated 12 eventual NFL talents – including three first-round draft picks on defense – from last year’s 8-6 team.

However, even with 11 freshmen and sophomores listed as starters on offense and defense, the Huskies still have a chance to make a bowl game. Second-year defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has once again assembled a dominant defense that is leading the conference in both points allowed (18.5 per game) and total defense (allowing 352.7 yards per game).

Senior linebacker Travis Feeney has paced the UW defense this year. His three forced fumbles are tied for the most in the Pac-12 and he has the third most sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (14.5).

However, the heart and soul of the UW defense left last week’s 52-7 blowout over Oregon State in the first half because of an apparent shoulder injury, which caused him to miss the rest of the game. Washington Head Coach Chris Petersen was optimistic this week about Feeney’s chances of playing today.

“A lot of guys are banged up at this time. I think guys have got to be really, really banged up to not play in (the Apple Cup),” Petersen said in a press conference. “So we’ll see.”

As has been the case since Leach took the helm for the Cougs in 2012, the Apple Cup will pit a staunch UW defense against a prolific WSU Air Raid offense, which is ranked first in the country in passing.

“They have a good defense and a good team, and they’re going to bring it no matter who they play, and their defense has shown that all year long,” WSU redshirt senior guard Gunnar Eklund said. “They have a good team, good players, and all respect to them, but if we do our job, it’s up to us how the game comes out.”

As the cliché goes, the records and expectations have to be thrown out when it comes to rivalry week. For the Cougar seniors, today’s game presents a final chance to bring the Apple Cup trophy back to Pullman after residing in Seattle for the last two years.

“It’s real personal,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Allison said. “The fact we can take this is as just another game in preparing is big, but it’s very personal. They have something we want, the Apple Cup, and we want to bring that back to our fans.”

The Apple Cup kicks off at 12:30 p.m. today at Husky Stadium in Seattle. FOX will broadcast the game.

WSU players, coaches still in running for national awards

As the Cougars continue to win football games, the team’s players and coaches continue to receive national attention in the form of award nominations.

In the last week, Leach was named a semifinalist for the George Munger Collegiate Coach of the Year Award, Falk was named a finalist for the Burlsworth Trophy, and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch was announced as a nominee for the Broyles Award.

In his fourth season leading the Cougars, Leach has steered the program to its most successful campaign since 2003, and his signature Air Raid offense has produced the most prolific passing attack in the nation this year.

Leach is one of 18 coaches who the Maxwell Football Club announced as semifinalists for its coach of the year award last week. The members of the club, NCAA football coaches, university sports information directors and members of the national media will vote on the semifinalists through Dec. 7, and the top three will advance as finalists. The winner will be announced Dec. 21.

Leach’s pass-heavy offense has manifested itself in Falk’s stat line this year, and as a result the QB is one of three finalists for the Burlsworth Trophy, an award the Sprigndale Rotary Club gives to the top college football player who began his career as a walk-on. The finalists were announced Tuesday.

Falk currently leads the nation in passing yards with 4,266 and is second in completion percentage (70.7). He has been the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week three times this season and was named one of 15 “Players to Watch” for The Walter Camp Player of the Year award Nov. 18.

The winner of the Burlsworth Trophy will be announced Dec. 7, and the Walter Camp Football Foundation will announce the five finalists for its Player of the Year award Wednesday with the winner to be announced Dec. 10 on ESPN.

Although still far from stifling, the Cougar defense this season is the best it’s been under Leach, and unsurprisingly Grinch, in his first year as WSU’s defensive coordinator, was nominated for the Broyles Award Wednesday, given by the Rotary Club of Little Rock and Delta Dental to the nation’s top assistant coach.

The Cougars rank sixth in the Pac-12 both in scoring defense and total defense this season, allowing 421.5 yards and 27.4 points per game. Last season, in Mike Breske’s final year as WSU’s defensive coordinator, the team ranked 10th in the conference in scoring defense and ninth in total defense.

The five finalists for the Broyles Award will be announced Monday. The winner will be announced Dec. 8 in Little Rock, Arkansas.