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November 20, 2008Don't tell Tyrone Willingham or Paul Wulff, but some people will enjoy the Apple Cup this year.
It's nothing personal. No one enjoys watching Willingham lose his job and lead Washington to perhaps its first winless season since 1890. No one's getting any satisfaction by watching Wulff, in his first season at Washington State, lead what might be the worst Pac-10 team of all time.
But Saturday's Apple Cup ? the Rotten Apple Cup or the Crapple Cup, if you want to get crass about it ? is in the running to be called one of the worst end-of-the-year rivalry games of all time.
It's the Caboose on the Palouse, bringing up the rear of in-state grudge matches. Making it even worse, the game is in one of the most remote locations in college football, Pullman, Wash., in the southeast part of the state, about 10 miles from the Idaho border. It's a 75-mile drive from Spokane and a 315-mile drive from Seattle.
Still, this game has a lurid appeal to it.
"This is as good as it gets," said Jim Walden, a former Washington State coach and now a radio analyst for the Cougars. "You want each team to be 9-0 and 10-0 ? or this. Who wants to watch two teams that are 5-4 and 6-3? I know if I was on the team, I'd want to play this week."
The Apple Cup will be played in all its high-definition glory on Fox Sports Net's national broadcast. The game is so awful, it's interesting.
"You can throw out the record when rivals get together," so the clich?oes. Please do, say the Huskies and Cougars. Among the lowlights of this game:
? The teams are a combined 1-20 overall and 0-15 in the Pac-10. The only win was Washington State's 48-9 victory over Portland State on Sept. 20. Portland State is 3-7 as a member of the Football Championship Subdivision (i.e., Division I-AA).
? Of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision (i.e., Division I-A) teams, Washington ranks 118th in total offense, 118th in scoring offense, 111th in total defense and 117th in scoring defense. Washington State ranks 119th in total offense, 119th in scoring offense, 113th in total defense and 119th in scoring defense. Washington is 117th in turnover margin, Washington State is last.
? Washington has been outscored by an average of 26 points per game. Its shining moment was a near-upset of then-No. 15 BYU. Washington lost 28-27 when quarterback Jake Locker was flagged for a questionable 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on a late touchdown run. BYU blocked the ensuing 35-yard extra-point attempt.
? Washington State has lost every Pac-10 game by at least 25 points. That includes three shutouts and two more games where the Cougars' only score was a field goal. The defense has been just as bad. Washington State has allowed at least 60 points in four Pac-10 games this year and went through a four-game stretch where it allowed at least 58 points in each game.
? Washington State has allowed a Pac-10 record 533 points this season. With two games left, it's likely the Cougars will break the dubious FBS record of 566 points allowed, held by Eastern Michigan's 2002 team.
? Washington is facing its first winless season since 1890. The Huskies played one game that year ? a scoreless tie at Washington College.
? Never before has there been a Pac-10 game between teams with at least 10 losses.
? Adding to the indignity, it's not the final game of the season for either team. Washington State finishes at Hawaii next week, and Washington is at California on Dec. 6. It's the first time since 1948 both teams will play an additional regular-season game after the Apple Cup.
Still, as bad as it is, this has competition as the worst Apple Cup. The two met in Seattle in 1969, when Washington State was 1-8 and Washington was 0-9. The records were only part of the ugliness.
Seven weeks into that season, then-Washington coach Jim Owens asked players for a show of "100 percent loyalty." Protests ensued when Owens suspended four black players whom he claimed didn't support him. Eight black players boycotted a loss to UCLA before most of the 12 players returned to the team.
"You better believe I'll be back," Owens was quoted as saying in The Seattle Times after Washington won 30-21. He would coach five more seasons before he was replaced by Don James.
And as bad as the Cougars and Huskies are this season, someone will win - and Rich Brooks can vouch for the importance of that. He was coach at Oregon from 1977-94. The Ducks and Oregon State were two of the worst teams in the Pac-10 at the start of his tenure. In 1981 and '82, both teams went into their season-ending "Civil War" with one win each. Oregon won both of those meetings.
"For a few years at Oregon, that's all we had to live on," said Brooks, now the coach at Kentucky. "It makes surviving just a little easier, particularly in the state boundaries. About all they have this year is to win the Apple Cup. Whoever doesn't win it is in for a very, very long offseason."
Though both programs are looking to save face Saturday, Washington State has more to gain with a win, said Walden, who went 41-55-4 with the Cougars from 1978-86.
Washington fired Willingham in October and could ride a wave of positive energy when the new coach is hired. Wulff's first season showed Washington State fans just how much rebuilding the Cougars have to do.
"The guy who would benefit more from this, professionally speaking, is Paul Wulff," Walden said. "Tyrone's leaving anyway."
Fans enduring taunts from friends or at work aren't fretting over the travails of the coaches, though. They're just looking to be less embarrassed about 2008 than their rivals.
"It's the one game that so many people share together," Willingham said. "You've got a pretty good split [in the state]. That means that bragging rights are on the line. You can wear that purple-and-gold shirt in the room and the other guy will leave the room."
This week will be one of the few where neither coach will need to find creative ways to motivate players. For both, it's one of the few chances to put a positive stamp of any kind on the season.
"Anytime you can get any kind of positive feel, you take it. ? [A win] takes a little of the sting out of it," Wulff said.
Walden used to broadcast Army-Navy games when both programs were struggling. He said this game has a similar character to it this season.
"You didn't tell [Army and Navy] that this game isn't important even if they didn't win a game," Walden said. "I feel the same way about this. We're not going to a bowl and neither are they. When you get to basics, it's what makes rivalry games special.
"You can say, 'We were bad ? but we were good enough to whip you.' "
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.