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Apple Cup 2017: Another year, another chance to play for the Pac-12 Championship

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NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential... these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.

-Confucius

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It’s not often the Washington State Cougars have a chance at a Pac-12 title in back-to-back seasons. Halley’s Comet actually comes around more frequently (almost).

Last season, the Cougs went into the Apple Cup against the Washington Huskies with their first opportunity since the early part of the century to win the title. UW, too, needed to win the game to advance to Santa Clara and by the end of the first quarter hour of play, they’d done quite enough to do just that.

A senior class that had brought WSU football back from the brink went out with a thud. Fans, boosters, and alums were thankful for everything they’d done, no doubt. But even the bare minimum expectation of “showing up” was hardly met in last year’s edition of this annual rivalry match-up.

Just like 2016, the Cougs enter the final game of the regular season with the chance of playing for the conference title. Just like 2016, a superb senior class has the chance to finish what they came to Washington State to start.

Just like 2016, the door is open.

True, someone is in your way of the door. It’s a someone, though, that this senior class has yet to defeat; someone who their fans care an awful lot about beating even though it happens relatively infrequently. Despite Mike Leach’s preference that this game be treated just like any other ... this one isn’t, even in a normal year. It’s especially true this year, given the stakes at hand. For one team anyway!

Though the opportunity is the same, things are decidedly different for the Cougs this year. They’re actually ranked higher than the Huskies and they’re doing it with defense. Over two dozen turnovers on the season, outstanding play from Hercules Mata’afa, Daniel Ekuale, Jalen Thompson, Jahad Woods and so many others have propelled this team into the top-15. Alex Grinch has taken this defense from a liability to the team’s greatest asset in just three short years.

The offense, though, is sputtering. Luke Falk has been benched twice and Tyler Hilinski has been asked to lead the charge back; successfully once (thanks in no small part to some tremendous luck but still). The receivers have had a hard time getting going in an offense that isn’t functioning the way it should, and Jamal Morrow and James Williams seem to be waiting for a break out game. The offensive line, laden with experience, has been subpar at times, though Falk’s indecisiveness could certainly be playing a role.

The good news for the Cougs is they aren’t facing the same Husky team either. Some fans have been grumbling for Jake Browning’s back up, the offense just isn’t the same without the other worldly John Ross, and the defense, though still very stout, is dealing with numerous injuries and one indefinite suspension. Washington, who had a chance to play for the Pac-12 title and move on to the College Football Playoff in last year’s Apple Cup, can only play spoiler for Washington State’s hopes this season.

I’ve gone back and forth on this game. Will it be incredibly low scoring as both defenses assert their will and force the opposing offenses into flawless drives merely to get into the red zone? Will the offenses finally find their footing and the game turns into a shootout? Will it come down to special teams play with Dante Pettis’ excellent return game on one side (note to Eric Mele: if the ball is kicked to Pettis on purpose once, walk home) and Erik Powell’s incredible senior season kicking the ball on the other?

The short of it is I really don’t know. Despite a better regular season that has left me more confident in the Cougs, it’s still the Apple Cup, a series where WSU wins less than two out of every three games. And although “spoiler” isn’t quite the motivation a CFP appearance is, it’s still a pretty good one for UW.

But when the teams take the field Saturday night in Seattle, only one will have a chance to play the USC Trojans again. Only one can win the Pac-12 Championship. Only one can hoist a trophy in Santa Clara.

The door is open; only for one.

So get the Huskies the hell out of your way and run through it.

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Don't waste a minute not being happy. If one window closes, run to the next window- or break down a door.

-Brooke Shields

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The open door: the most important person vs. Washington.

Have a very happy and wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone.