Sports with Art Thiel
9:00 pm
Thu November 24, 2011

Pride, possible coaching jobs on the line in Apple Cup

It's Apple Cup time again! The annual cross-state rivalry game between the University of Washington and Washington State University will be played at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.

KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel says there's not much at stake for the players beyond bragging rights. But for two coaches, it's a different story.

No bowl drama, just bragging rights

WSU comes to the Apple Cup with a record of 4-7. Had the Cougars beaten Utah last weekend, they would've been playing for bowl eligibility on Saturday. But they lost, so they're not.

With a record of 6-5, UW has already earned a spot in a bowl game (to be determined after next week's Pac-12 championship game).

So, for the players, only pride is on the line in this year's Apple Cup.

Win or lose, WSU coach could lose job

But the pressure is mounting on WSU head coach Paul Wulff. He's 9-39 in his three years with the Cougars and Art says that has a lot of people calling for his ouster.

"In my view, he has to win this game if he's going to save his job. And even if he does (win),they may fire him. He was in a deep ditch to start with because he was left with almost nothing after they fired Bill Doba, his predecessor. It's really difficult to build a program in less than four years to be bowl ready."

Arts says Wulff inherited a troubled team from former coach Bill Doba, who took over after Mike Price left. WSU had three 10-win seasons in a row under Price, capped by a Rose Bowl appearance in 2002.

But the team faltered under Doba, who Art says wasn't successful in managing people or problems. Then Wulff was hired from Eastern Washington – a school in a division below the Pac-12. That caused some controversy even before he started as head coach.

UW defensive coach under scrutiny

Washington has its own share of coaching problems. Art says it has to do with a "sorry defense."

"There's tremendous pressure on defensive coordinator Nick H0lt. Washington statistically is one of the worst defenses not only in the conference now, but in the Huskies' history."

Art thinks Holt may be fired if the Huskies lose the Apple Cup.

Sad sacks

Both UW and WSU have had trouble keeping their quarterbacks out of trouble.

"Both teams are the worst in the Pac-12 at protecting their quarterbacks. They're 11th and 12th in sacks surrendered. Which means that your most important asset is getting beaten up a lot. As long as that happens, these teams are going to stay mediocre."

Art says the result has been injuries to quarterbacks on both teams.

WSU starting quarterback Jeff Tuel broke his collar bone in the first game of the season. Second string QB Marshall Lobbestael filled in admirably for a while but also got hurt. Last week, third string quarterback Conner Halliday suffered a lacerated liver after taking several big hits. Lobbestael is expected to start in the Apple Cup.

Washington starting quarterback Keith Price is nursing two sprained knees and a sprained ankle but is still expected to start for the Huskies on Saturday. Backup freshman quarterback Nick Montana (son of Hall-of-Fame quarterback Joe Montana) started last weekend against Oregon State, but Art says he made some rookie mistakes that forced Price to come in late in the game. 

All in all, Art expects this year's Apple Cup to be a "lame game" – except for the excitement it always generates among alumni and fans of both teams.

You can find Art Thiel's work and more about the Apple Cup at Sportspress Northwest.

In a weekly Q&A, Seattle sports expert and longtime columnist Art Thiel gives his take on the latest regional and national sports news. “Sports with Art Thiel is published here and airs on KPLU 88.5 every Friday during Morning Edition and on Weekend Saturday Edition.