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Apple Cup 2016 will miss River Cracraft, an all-time Coug

The Cougs will be missing one of their all-time best when they take the field on Friday in the Apple Cup.

Washington State v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Apple Cup 2016 is one of the most highly anticipated games in the history of the rivalry between Washington State and Washington, so it is fitting that some of WSU’s all-time greats will be celebrated on the field before the game. One of those will be River Cracraft, but unlike his other senior teammates, he won’t get to take the field to battle the No. 5 Huskies.

Unfortunately, an ACL injury suffered in WSU’s 56-21 win over Cal two weeks ago is what is keeping the Cougs’ star pass-catcher on the sideline for his Senior Day.

It was to be a forgettable play. Midway through the third quarter of a game in which Washington State was rolling with a 35-7 lead, Luke Falk surveyed the scene on a 3rd-and-5. He settled on a crossing Cracraft short of the first down marker. The receiver was immediately tackled one yard short of the line to gain. Deep in Cal territory, it was clear the Cougars would punt.

From my seat in Martin Stadium, I was disappointed the Cougs couldn’t pick up the first down. I wanted them to bury Cal in the same fashion they buried Arizona the week prior. But then I noticed Cracraft didn’t get up, and he looked like he was in pain. The concern among the crowd was obvious.

As Cracraft laid there on the turf, I couldn’t help but think how he hadn’t played a full season since 2013. That year, he became one of WSU’s most reliable and effective wide receivers as a freshman, especially on third down. In the years that followed, he missed three and then two games. Coug fans were desperate for one more full season of Cracraft’s brilliance.

There was one last moment when Cracraft paused before leaving the field. I noticed it out of the corner of my eye, then stood and watched as he seemed to take the moment in. He knew the injury was bad, he knew he wouldn’t be back in uniform. It was a heartbreaking moment for an all-time great.

The 6-foot, 200-pound inside receiver spent his career as one of the most unguardable individuals in the Pac-12. His route running precision was evident as a recruit, and it only improved at WSU. He was the favorite third-down target of Connor Halliday, then the favorite third-down target of Falk, with a knack for reading the defense and finding holes, or just destroying his man off the line to get into space.

Let’s call back to WSU’s win over Stanford this season as an example, and here’s all of River’s catches, narrated by CougCenter’s PJ Kendall (you’ll notice they are all a first down or a touchdown):

3rd and 8 - Falk pass complete to Cracraft, gain of 27 yards. First down, WSU.

3rd and 10 - Falk pass complete to Cracraft, gain of 19 yards. First down, WSU.

2nd and 3 - Falk pass complete to Cracraft, gain of 30 yards. First down, WSU.

1st and 10 - Falk pass complete to Cracraft, gain of 12 yards. First down, WSU.

4th and 1 - Falk pass complete to Cracraft, gain of 4 yards. First down, WSU.

1st and 16 - Falk pass complete to Cracraft, gain of 22 yards. First down, WSU.

2nd and 10 - Falk pass complete to Craft, gain of 16 yards. Touchdown, WSU.

That last catch was nothing short of magnificent, as Cracraft overcame some obvious pass interference and made the catch while falling down in the endzone.

That last catch was indeed magnificent, as PJ put it. Cracraft made a ridiculous over-the-shoulder grab, while the defender was doing all he could to draw a flag. You know it was special, because it actually impressed all of us. We have become so accustomed to Cracraft’s ability to make impossible catches, that it has to be something truly remarkable for us to stand up and notice. We were spoiled for four years.

Those routine spectacular grabs were in part made possible by Cracraft’s most underrated asset: his athleticism. He has solid, if not top-end, speed and an impressive leaping ability to go along with elite body control. You combine that athleticism with his technical skills and sticky hands, and you get an inside receiver that averaged 12.4 yards per catch over his WSU career, including 13.2 as a senior.

The Stanford win is just one of Cracraft’s memorable games. He made his name to those outside of WSU in 2014, when he grabbed eight passes for 107 yards and a score against No. 3 Oregon. That was the first of four consecutive 100-yard games for Cracraft including 172 yards and three scores against Cal. He also followed up the incredible catch at Stanford with another on Homecoming against UCLA, stretching out for a one-handed grab in the wind and rain.

The final tallies in a Cougar uniform for Cracraft are impressive, especially when you consider the games missed: 218 receptions (2nd all-time at WSU) for 2701 yards (6th) and 20 touchdowns (6th). There was also what felt like an infinite number of drive-extending catches, and run-springing blocks.

Those numbers don’t fully convey the impact River Cracraft has had on WSU over the past four years. He is a living embodiment of the attitude that has fueled Washington State’s turnaround: a tough-as-nails, physical player that never stops competing, and can’t be bothered by adversity.

Cracraft won’t be on the field for the Apple Cup, and that’s a shame. He’s been at the core of the rebuild, and key to this year’s Cougar run to the top of the Pac-12 standings. He’ll certainly get one of the loudest cheers during the Senior Day ceremony, a roar that will only be stifled by a sudden epidemic of lumps in Cougar fans’ throats. Especially considering WSU might have something special up its sleeve to honor Cracraft:

Go Cougs. Win it for River.