PULLMAN, Wash. -- At midseason Washington was teetering on the brink of collapse, coming off three straight losses, two huge blowouts and dissent in the fan base about whether Steve Sarkisian was truly the right coach to be rebuilding its program.
During the past four weeks, Sarkisian's team has quieted critics, matched the longest regular season win streak in more than a decade and put the Huskies on the brink of their first eight-win season since 2001.
Yet the Huskies (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) are mostly overshadowed by the chaos at Washington State (2-9, 0-8) headed into Friday's Apple Cup against the rival Cougars. No two-win team has gotten as much attention as the Cougars, largely because they have underperformed and for claims of abuse from coaches by former wide receiver Marquess Wilson that led to internal and Pac-12 investigations.
Then again, not every two-win team has Mike Leach as its head coach.
"We need to go out and try to win the game just for the sake of trying to win the game and play good football," Leach said this week.
Then he added about all the chaos: "Most of the time it's been pointless and centered toward selfish people who are being revealed for who they are.”
Expectations before the season had the Apple Cup as a possible bowl-clinching opportunity for the Cougars with the excitement over that potential making up for the fact the game is being played the day after Thanksgiving on the Washington State campus while students are out on break.
Instead, no one is quite sure what the atmosphere will be. Normally, games in Pullman have an extra twinge of vitriol. Washington State officials said earlier this week less than a 1,000 tickets remained, yet how many of those were snatched up before the season began when all the buzz and hype in the state was pointed crimson and gray is unknown.
There's no debating Leach's first season in Pullman has flopped on the field as he attempted to recondition the Cougars into the type of program he wants going forward. Before the season, the Cougars were thought to be a potential bowl team with the amount of talent returning and Leach's run of success at Texas Tech which proved his ability to win nearly anywhere.
Those same fans that bought season tickets in droves and ramped up donations to the school have been left shaking their heads at another downtrodden season when they've received far more negative attention than the positive buzz that Leach's hiring brought.
Some of the losses have been ugly and reminiscent of just a few years ago when the Cougars were the laughingstock of college football. But Washington State has flustered some of the better competition in the Pac-12 this season. They flustered Oregon for a half, before the Ducks took off and pulled away. They put a scare into Oregon State, nearly pulled off a huge upset at Stanford and made a valiant second-half rally after being down 30 to make things uncomfortable for UCLA.
The Cougars may be short-handed with quarterback Connor Halliday and defensive end Travis Long possibly missing the game with injuries. Leach does not discuss the injury status of his players, but indicated Jeff Tuel would likely start at quarterback.
"This is a big game for a lot of people. Everyone remembers the Apple Cup," Washington State DB Deone Bucannon said. "You're going to remember the Apple Cup for the rest of your life.”
Leach can only wish for the day he can give the same speech Sarkisian did in his team room earlier this week, bringing up the fact that Washington could finish with eight wins for the first time since the 2001 season that ended with a berth in the Holiday Bowl. A fifth-straight win to close the season would be the Huskies longest winning roll since 2000, the last time Washington made a trip to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.
Sarkisian is undefeated against the Cougars (4-0) and his teams at Washington are becoming known for making late surges. It's a small sample, but the Huskies are 9-6 in regular season games in the months of November and December in Sarkisian's four seasons. It's an impressive trait since the Huskies are just 7-10 in the month of October under Sarkisian.
"I think that's one of our main things in the program is finish. Even in the offseason workouts it's not about how you start, but how you finish. Everybody is going to remember the end of the season and I think that's been our main motto since I've been here," Washington QB Keith Price said. "It's been a real attention to detail when it comes to the end of the season. We know what we need to accomplish and Sark harps on that.”
While Washington's offense has awakened the last two weeks, the current win streak is mostly on the shoulders of the Huskies improving defense. After giving up 52 points at Arizona on Oct. 20, Washington has allowed just 48 in wins over Oregon State, California, Utah and Colorado.
"We had a rocky start," Washington safety Justin Glenn said. "The way we've responded to the adversity and battled back and strung these four wins together and kept it going, that's what (Sarkisian) wanted and that's what we've tried to do.”