Isaiah Stanback (Kim Grinolds/Dawgman.com)
It’s Apple Cup week and the media frenzy along Montlake is at a fever pitch. Pundits from around the state, on message boards and the local newscasts are waxing poetic on what some outside the Evergreen State may think has turned out to be a ho-hum contest between the Washington Huskies and Washington State Cougars at Husky Stadium on Saturday.
Just because the 98th meeting between the cross-state rivals is a matchup of the ninth and tenth place teams in the conference, that isn’t any excuse for the Husky players – elated over their 38-14 victory on the road against Arizona last Saturday – to overlook their opponents this Saturday.
“We’re happy, I guess you could say,” junior QB Isaiah Stanback said referring to the team’s attitude. “We’re not relaxed. I mean, we’re happy we got it. That was a long time coming for us. We’re happy just to get the win. Now, we’ve got the urge to go out and do it again. In order to do that we have to have another good week of practice and preparation and we can’t buy into the hype like coach says.
“There’s a lot of aspects of why we want to win this game, besides just wanting to get a ‘W’. We want to send the seniors out right and have a good intro into next year and into the offseason. We want to get the Apple Cup. We know that’s big, not only for us but for a lot of people and our supporters.”
The supporters of the Husky football program, like the players, have seen a lot the past four seasons. Three different coaching regimes, two athletic directors and more losses than most had encountered in a decade, much less a four-year stretch.
Last week’s win over the Wildcats caused even the stoic leader of the Dawgs, first-year head coach Tyrone Willingham, to show more emotion than many have seen in his short tenure at the helm.
Following Stanback’s improbable 69-yard, “Hail Mary” touchdown pass to sophomore WR Craig Chambers as time ran out in the first half, Willingham exclaimed to KJR sideline reporter Steve Sandmeyer, “that was a helluva pass!”
Following the game, Willingham showed his players even more emotion.
“He smiled and jumped,” Stanback said with a laugh. “It was the first time we had ever seen that. He got up a little bit off the ground, he had a little bounce.
“He was talking like normal, real mellow and then out of nowhere he was like ‘hey we need to keep our heads straight’ and all that kind of stuff and he was like, ‘yes I’m excited’ and he jumped up and everybody stood back and he was like...it wasn’t no credit card jump.”
Turning back to the Cougars, this will be the fifth-year seniors’ final Apple Cup and they have gone 3-1 in their previous four. Last year’s loss in Pullman wrapped up the worst season in Washington football history and Husky players want to work toward changing the fortunes of the program this coming week against the Cougars.
“It’s definitely going to be big,” senior LB Evan Benjamin said. “I think it’s going to be a real emotional game for everybody all around, especially for us because we’re coming off a good win and we’re still learning and getting a lot of things corrected. I feel this program is moving in the right direction so I think this is a big step, not only for out team, but for the whole program.”
While Stanback and Benjamin are both from Washington, California-born tackle Joe Toledo shared his thoughts on the game. A game that he never had the pleasure of witnessing as he grew up, but one that has still made an impression on him as a player and a person.
“It’s grown on me a little bit,” Toledo said. “My freshman year, even my redshirt freshman year, some of those games when Kai Ellis had that big game. You don’t really know about it until you’ve been a part of it. It’s a big-time game, it’s a raucous crowd and everybody’s going to give their best shot that’s out there.
“I’ll definitely come back up for some Apple Cups. I’ve grown to really like this place and I’d definitely like to come back and watch some of those games.”
The annual Oregon-Oregon State matchup to end the season has been dubbed “The Civil War” and like any “Civil War” the in-state rivalry games pit brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend. The Apple Cup is no different.
“I’m just looking forward to this game, I think it’s going to be a real good game,” Benjamin said with wide eyes and the shake of his head. “It’s Washington State. We’ve got a lot of friends on both sides of the ball and it’s going to be one of those games where both of us are going to bring everything, so it’s going to be a good game.
“I’ve got an ex-teammate (current Cougar Sean O’Connor) on the other team that I’m going to be playing right across from so I’m excited for that too. He’s playing left guard over there. I’m going to be lined up against him. We’ve been talking about this since high school. It’s going to be a good opportunity.
With reporters from the east and west side’s of the state talking about the rivalry, Stanback says he’s just focusing on preparing for the Cougars.
“We know what’s going on within our team,” Stanback said. “We know how we have to be focused. We’re playing them. We’re not playing everybody else who’s pumping it up. We’ve got to be focused. If you’re not focused bad things happen.
“With all the hype that’s built around (the Apple Cup), truthfully once you get in the game, it’s just you against them. You don’t want to lose to anybody, but with a rivalry and everything it’s just that much more pumped up. It makes you work that much harder out there. They’re going to compete and we’re going to compete and it’s going to be a hard fought game just like it is every year.”
Hard fought even though neither team is heading to a bowl game this season. Hard fought even though both teams have had their own pain and misery. Hard fought because this is the final game that many of the players from both teams will ever play.