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Of Cougar fear and self-loathing in the Apple Cup

The worst-best (best-worst?) game of the year is upon us, WSU fans. Embrace your dread.

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State
Don’t look too closely at the engraving, Coug fans. Then again, you already know.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

I came of age as a Coug at a glorious time. When I arrived at WSU, the football team was coming off a bowl game. Within two years, I was a first-hand witness to the greatest team to ever wear crimson and gray.

I watched WSU beat the Washington Huskies on their turf to secure a Pac-10 championship. I attended a Rose Bowl that actually involved the Washington State Cougars. They nearly beat the No. 1 team in the country.

I walked into Husky Stadium that year chanting, “WHOSE HOUSE? COUGS’ HOUSE!” And ... it actually happened!

Shortly after I graduated, the Cougs won 30 games in three years. There was another Rose Bowl appearance in there. There was a win over a top 5 team in the Holiday Bowl, then the second-best postseason game the conference had to offer. (On my honeymoon!)

There also were three Apple Cup losses in that span, each of which seemed to defy logic.

The universe was trying to tell me something.

“LOL Nusser, you think being a Coug is like that? No no no no no no noooooooo ... so sorry, my friend. It’s actually like THIS.

Or, in photo form, if you prefer that:

Robinson celebrates Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Or, in GIF form, if you prefer that:

We love to remember the great moments. And they really are great! But you might consider for a moment the real reason we hold them so dear:

Because they happen so damn infrequently.

Much more often, we get our hopes up, only to watch our team get its collective face kicked in for the 50th time. Slightly less often, our hopes actually are justified by a close game, then we sit there mortified as something weird as hell happens to inevitably tilt the game to Washington.

Then, once in a blue moon — and I mean this literally, as a blue moon happens about every three years, and the Cougs win about one in every three Apple Cups — the heavens align and we’re able to pull of some kind of miracle and actually beat Washington.

But only by the slimmest of margins! In the last 20 years, WSU has won six Apple Cups by a total margin of 26 points. Washington, meanwhile, has exceeded that total margin in a single game four different times in that span.

That includes last season’s 28-point beatdown. And the previous season’s 35-point ass whipping. (Thank goodness for 2014, though, when the Huskies really failed and only won by 18.)

I’m going to be completely honest, and this is probably going to upset some of you: Because of history, both ancient and recent, I haven’t even seriously considered the possibility the Cougs will win this game.

That’s what the last eight years — in which WSU has lost seven times by a combined 145 points and needed a historic meltdown by UW in order to secure the lone victory — have done to me.

With the notable exception of 2009 (I mean, we allllllll knew how that was going to go) I talked myself into ways each year would be different.

2010: “Jake Locker’s overrated! Here comes Jeff Tuel!” You guys, we would have totally won if not for Chris Polk and Jermaine Kearse.

2011: “Paul Wulff’s turning a corner!” Wait, is Paul Wulff punting down 17 in the fourth quarter? WTF??!!?!

Washington v Washington State
Sigh. Why did it have to be him?
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

2012: “I don’t care how this season’s gone, you can throw out the records. And we’ve got Mike Leach!” This is the worst game I’ve ever seen ... HOLY CRAP YOU GUYS EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT NOW!!!

2013: “We’re bowl eligible! We can totally pull this off! We did it last year!” Oh for crap’s sake, did it have to be Bishop Sankey, of all people? REALLY?

2014: “Hey, this Luke Falk kid might actually be awesome!” OK, maybe not yet. But he’s only a freshman! Watch out!

2015: “The Air Raid is bigger than one guy!” Yeah, never mind.

2016: “OUR GUY IS BACK!!!! You’re going to find it a lot harder to beat us with our starting quarterback!” [blankly stares across the room as the fire of 10000 suns burns inside my soul]

It’s not just the losses; it’s the manner of the losses, in which one team’s players perform as if it would be an affront to their manhood and an eternal embarrassment to lose to those jokers from cow town, while the other team’s players appear to simply soil themselves at the sight of purple.

It’s a dynamic I’ll never understand. I would think it would be easy for the underdog to get fired up and take a swing. I hate the whole “little brother” thing, but ... isn’t that what little brothers do?

Maybe it’s caused by Mike Leach’s “play the next play/game” mantra, in which every game is given equal importance — even when every game is not equally important. Maybe it’s caused by the fact that very few of our players come from Washington, so it’s a lot easier to get up for USC or UCLA — you know, the schools they grew up rooting for that passed them over in the recruiting process. Maybe it’s caused by the fact that as Leach restocked the talent, the roster was just too young to grasp the gravity of a rivalry game.

Or maybe it’s none of that, since we’ve generally been face planting in this game for the last century regardless of the situation.

Even Vegas is on this train: Washington opened around minus-10; initially roughly 90 percent of the money came in on the Cougs to cover ... and the oddsmakers didn’t move an inch on the line. Vegas always knows. (Only about 75 percent of the action is on the Cougs now. And the line still hasn’t moved.)

Sadly, I’ve reached a point where I don’t get particularly excited about this game at all. In fact, it’s the opposite: It now comes with a sense of dread regarding the inevitability of the result, which carries with it the attendant fallout that those of us who live on the west side of the state have to deal with more often than not.

It’s why I won’t be in Husky Stadium on Saturday, paying way too much money to sit way too high to listen to way too many Jack Huskies imitate the sound of an animal and sing four words of a fight song and talk shit about a school whose academic buildings they couldn’t find if you gave them six hours and $100 to do so.

It’s why I won’t be going to my dad’s house to watch the game, because while he’s a wonderful man and a perfectly reasonable person, he’s still a Husky, and I can’t stand the thought of stewing next to him as he cheers for four hours before I can make the 45-minute trek back to my house.

It’s why I’ll just be sitting alone in my basement, drinking my favorite beers, because if everything goes wrong, well, at least I’ll be comfortable and already near people who make me smile.

I totally understand if this isn’t you. If you’re going to head to Montlake or to your Husky friend’s house or to your local watering hole believing that this is the time it’s all going to come together, that anything can happen in an Apple Cup, etc. etc., God bless you. Seriously, I say that without a hint of sarcasm. I’m envious.

I really want to believe that largely the same cast of characters from a year ago will produce a substantially different result. There are reasons to think this one might be different — the Cougar defense is legitimately stronger, and the Huskies are not as strong as they were a year ago. There are sizable chinks in the armor.

But then again, we’ve already been over how little that usually matters in this game.

I actually think the best chance for success lies in the psychology of the players themselves. Maybe the Cougs have just finally had enough of getting their asses handed to them by Washington and are ready to take a swing — there are a lot of seniors on this team, after all, none of whom have sniffed a win in this game. Maybe the Huskies themselves will suffer a little bit of a letdown, knowing that even with a win, they’ll be sitting at home for another week, waiting for a phone call from a bowl game that will pale mightily in comparison to the College Football Playoff.

See, there I go talking myself into that nonsense again.

Maybe someday I’ll actually learn.

Go Cougs.