PULLMAN, Wash. (AP) — Located inside the Washington State football complex is a glass enclosure where, when it's in the possession of the crimson and gray, the Apple Cup trophy resides.
It's been five years since the trophy has called Pullman home, and reclaiming ownership on Friday when No. 7 Washington State hosts No. 16 Washington would add a chapter to a season already unlike no other in the Cougars' history.
"None of the past five years has a great deal to do with right now," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "I'm not terribly focused on that."
A year that began with tragedy could end with unexpected triumph if the Cougars (10-1, 7-1 Pac-12, No. 8 CFP) can end their five-game skid. The winner will play in the Pac-12 championship game against Utah as the North Division champ, and for the Cougars, there still remains the outside possibility of landing in the College Football Playoff with two more wins and a lot of chaos.
Washington State even being mentioned in the CFP conversation is astonishing. The season has provided joy and excitement to a program shrouded in sadness less than a year after the death of Tyler Hilinski.
"I'd like to make jokes, but I think Mike Leach is awesome for college football and what he's all about. But at the end of the day I don't think there's too many people that have not been impressed with what he's done over there because they have been through a lot. It's impressive," Washington coach Chris Petersen said.
Gardner Minshew is a big reason why the Cougars — who were picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North — have a chance to land in the conference title game. The grad transfer from East Carolina with the well-groomed mustache has mastered most of Leach's offense in just a few months on campus and become the national leader in passing.
More so, he brought a joy and swagger the Cougars desperately needed. But the Cougars will have to be more than Minshew to get the Apple Cup back in their possession.
"Coming up here you learn fast how much it means to everybody," Minshew said.
Somewhat lost in the buildup has been what is still at stake for Washington. It's fair to say the season has been a disappointment after the Huskies (8-3, 6-2, No. 16 CFP) began the year with playoff aspirations only to stumble three times. But beating the Cougars would continue their in-state dominance and give Washington a chance at reaching the Rose Bowl. It's not the playoff, but Pasadena isn't a bad place to spend New Year's Day.
A decade, ago the Apple Cup was the laughingstock of college football when the 1-10 Cougars faced the 0-10 Huskies in a game remembered affectionately as the Crapple Cup. Now for the second time in three years, the Pac-12 North title is on the line.
Here's what else to watch for in the 111th meeting:
PROTECT THE STACHE: Washington's ability to get pressure on Washington State's quarterbacks in previous Apple Cups has caused major problems for the Air Raid. Last year Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea took over the game and Washington State's offense struggled. Vea is gone, Washington's pass rush has been a concern all season and the Cougars have been exceptional protecting Minshew, who has been sacked just nine times in 11 games.
GROUND GASKIN: One of the best games of Myles Gaskin's career at Washington came in last year's matchup when he rushed for 192 yards and four touchdowns. The senior needs 94 yards rushing to become the first player in Pac-12 history with four 1,000-yard rushing seasons in his career and appears fully healthy after missing time earlier in the season with a shoulder injury. But Washington State's defense has been stingy against the run, allowing 3.79 yards per rush.
CATCH AND RUN: The combo of running backs James Williams and Max Borghi is a huge part of the Washington State offense. Combined, the pair have 109 receptions. Williams' 69 catches are tied for 18th nationally regardless of position. The use of Borghi and Williams is an extension of the Cougars' run game, which itself has been very good this season. The use of the running backs in the pass game will mean a busy day for Washington linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, second in the country with 145 tackles.
MEMORIES OF '97: There are many parallels between this Washington State team and the 1997 one. Both were led by a charismatic quarterback and had a dynamic pass offense. Both had a solid defense. And both rose up in a season when it was Washington entering the year as part of the national championship conversation. That 1997 Washington State team beat the Huskies in the Apple Cup to go to the Rose Bowl. Can these Cougars match the accomplishment?