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Originally published November 25, 2011 at 8:02 PM | Page modified November 26, 2011 at 2:58 PM

Not much on the line, other than Apple Cup pride

WSU and Washington prepare for rivalry game

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Even when there's nothing on the line, those who've played and coached in the Apple Cup say it can still mean everything.

Which is good for those who plan to take in the 104th edition of the in-state rivalry Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at CenturyLink Field.

Because once again, there's not a whole lot at stake.

Washington is 6-5 and already has sewn up a bid in a non-BCS bowl. Washington State is 4-7 and already is eliminated from bowl contention. Whether the Cougars might be playing for the job security of coach Paul Wulff, 9-39 as he nears the end of the fourth year of his rebuilding project, is unclear.

"I don't think like that," Wulff said. "We've got a great, young football team, a good, young team that is getting better and better all the time."

A team Wulff — who played center at WSU from 1986-89 — said is ready to embrace a game that feels different from any other.

"There's a lot more talk and a lot more intensity involved in this game, and that's what makes it exciting," he said.

Washington linebacker Cort Dennison, a fifth-year senior and team captain, agreed.

"It's obviously a very emotional game and a hard-hitting game," he said.

Maybe that emotion will be enough to snap the Huskies out of their recent doldrums, which have resulted in a three-game losing streak that has taken a lot of buzz off the season. Washington has been outscored 112-59 in defeats against Oregon, USC and Oregon State, the latter a particularly disheartening 38-21 setback last Saturday in Corvallis.

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian was forced to acknowledge this week there's still some heavy lifting left in his rebuilding project.

"There is no magic button, no magic dust to sprinkle on it that all of a sudden it's just going to happen," he said.

The Apple Cup has proved at times to serve as a strong transformative power. The 2003 Huskies suffered one of the worst defeats in school history the week before the Apple Cup, a 54-7 thrashing at California, before returning home the following week to beat a 10-win Washington State squad.

Sarkisian says the emotion only goes so far.

"At the end of the day, you still have to block, tackle, run, throw, catch and that is what we emphasize," he said.

The Huskies might be able to do the throwing part better this week with the return of starting quarterback Keith Price, who didn't start against Oregon State and played just two series while nursing a sprained left knee.

Washington has struggled to protect its quarterbacks, and has allowed 26 sacks in Pac-12 games — tied with Washington State for the most. But a more mobile Price could help mitigate the difficulties of the line.

WSU also is making a change at quarterback as fifth-year senior Marshall Lobbestael returns to the lineup to replace Connor Halliday, who earned the starting job with an eye-popping 494 yards against Arizona State two weeks ago then suffered a lacerated liver last Saturday against Utah. Lobbestael has started eight games this season and also played in the 2009 Apple Cup.

"He's been part of this before, and he's going to handle it fine," Wulff said.

If he does, the WSU passing game figures to serve as a challenge to a UW pass defense that ranks among the worst in the nation, allowing 278.3 yards a game. That's 11th in the Pac-12, and WSU is averaging 320.4 yards passing, second in the conference.

A bigger issue for the Cougs might be trying to get a handle on UW running back Chris Polk, who last year torched WSU for 284 yards in leading the Huskies to a 35-28 victory in Pullman.

"We've definitely got to do a better job than we did a year ago on him to give ourselves a chance," Wulff said.

More often than not, though, each team finds a way to stay in it — 12 of the 16 games in the series since 1995 have been decided by eight points or fewer.

"I know people say, 'Oh, it's just another game,' " Sarkisian said. "And the reality of it is, it isn't. That's a rivalry game, and that's the pageantry of football. A lot of guys on our team grew up playing with or against guys on that team, in high school or all-star games. So I think it carries a little added incentive.

"And then, obviously, the bragging rights of it all. But that's what college football is all about. That's why we do what we do — to enjoy these experiences."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @bcondotta

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