Coaches looking for next step in Apple Cup

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian knows he can background two of the worst blights on his résumé coaching the Huskies by beating Washington State in the Apple Cup on Saturday.

No. 1: A victory would make the Huskies 8-4, thereby ending a streak of three consecutive 7-6 seasons that provided mocking fodder for Washington's rivals and Sarkisian's critics.

No. 2: He can vanquish the memory of the epic collapse in last season's Apple Cup, when the Cougars overcame an 18-point deficit and won in overtime.

Sarkisian is fully aware of the stakes, for him and his team. Eclipsing the 7-win mark?

"I think it’s big because it’s on paper," he said. "You can say, ‘They improved because the number says they improved.’ I think it’s big for the veterans on this team -- the seniors and juniors -- for them to walk off the field Friday after the Apple Cup. If we can get to that eighth win, they know they improved this program."

And about that 2012 Apple Cup? Sarkisian called the fourth quarter, his team suddenly plagued by turnovers and penalties, "a comedy of errors."

"It still leaves a bad taste in our mouths -- I can tell you that," Sarkisian said.

On the visiting side of the field at Husky Stadium on Friday, there will be a team that already has hit a notable benchmark -- winning a sixth game and becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2006 -- one that has a much different feeling about the decisive fourth quarter of the 2012 Apple Cup. What the Huskies see as a collapse, the Cougars view as an assertion of will, one that provided solace for a disappointing debut for coach Mike Leach.

"I thought it did energize our offseason," Leach said. "It was a win over a quality opponent. I was telling our players, I think it most definitely revealed some of the potential that we have."

Still, the Cougs, not unlike the Huskies, have had some tough moments this year. On Oct. 31, after falling to 4-5 with an embarrassing 55-21 home loss to Arizona State in front of just 20,000 fans in Martin Stadium, the Cougars looked to be coming apart at the seams. But, after a bye week, they went down to Tucson and upset Arizona, and then came home last weekend and whipped Utah 49-37, a team that beat the Cougs 49-6 a year ago.

Leach, however, didn't see some definitive moment of transformation with his team. He sees more of a sometimes painful accumulation over the past two seasons that is starting to pay off.

"I think we're a young team and we've just steadily improved," Leach said. "The think I'm most happy with is no body gave up or flinched. Everybody just kept working."

The linger questions over this game is the health of Washington quarterback Keith Price, who missed the Huskies' win over Oregon State last weekend due to a shoulder injury. He's throwing again but is decidedly questionable. Sarkisian said it was "very clear" that Price isn't close to 100 percent. If he can't go, Cyler Miles will make his second consecutive start.

Miles played well at Oregon State, though he was helped by 530 yards rushing and an "Olé" effort from the Beavers.

"I thought he looked like a Pac-12 quarterback," Sarkisian said. "It didn’t look new to him; he just looked comfortable."

While the stakes aren't of national interest and the game won't affect the Pac-12 race, it's been 11 years since both teams arrived at the Apple Cup with winning records. Both programs are trying to become nationally relevant again, and the rivals certainly appears closer to being so than in recent years. That's a good thing for both schools, according to Sarkisian.

"The better the two teams are performing, the better the environment for the game, and I’m hoping in the near future this game is deciding who is playing for the Pac-12 Championship," he said. "I think our fans -- theirs and ours -- deserve that."

Of course, while sharing a nationally relevant stage is something both programs aspire to, they certainly don't want to yield top billing on the marquee.