Cougars try to end Huskies bowl hopes in Apple Cup

PULLMAN, WASH. (AP) - Fair or not, the 103rd edition of the Apple Cup is to many a referendum on the career of Jake Locker at Washington.

He could be lauded as the quarterback who helped rescue Washington from the depths of the lowest moments in program history and got the Huskies back to the postseason for the first time in nearly a decade.

Or, he’ll be remembered as the talented quarterback who in consecutive years failed to get that all-important sixth win that would help return Washington to respectability.

Seems like a lot riding on a rivalry game between two teams with a combined seven victories.

“It’s awesome. Couldn’t ask for more,” Locker said. “Got one game left, and you’re playing for the opportunity to make it to a bowl game _ something for me and everybody on this team has never got to experience. It’s really cool. I think it’s going to be a great atmosphere.”

When Washington (5-6, 4-4 Pac-10) and Washington State (2-9, 1-7) meet on what’s expected to be a below-freezing Saturday night on the Palouse, the Huskies will be playing in a season-ending game that could propel them to a bowl game for the first time since 2002.

That was the last time Washington went to a bowl, the longest drought of any team in the conference. Among BCS schools, only Baylor _ likely broken this season _ and Duke have gone longer without a bowl trip than the Huskies.

A win over the Cougars, and coach Paul Wulff, will take at least a little pain off the 0-12 season the Huskies endured just two years ago.

“To have the opportunity to go play in a bowl game symbolizes progress, no doubt,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Whether completely internally, it has that perception externally.”

For Locker, playing in the postseason could help erase the external impression that returning for his senior season was a mistake and will help validate his five years on campus.

He’ll leave Washington as the school’s career leader in combined touchdowns passing and running, and he will have helped give exposure to a program that probably didn’t deserve any after the blight of 2008.

But his NFL draft stock has already taken a hit, going from being the first quarterback mentioned when the season began, to now being shuffled behind Andrew Luck and Cam Newton in the discussion. His numbers have also dipped in nearly every statistical category, with his completion percentage, yards and touchdowns all down from last season.

Not to mention the cracked rib he’s played with for the past few weeks.

Locker maintains he wouldn’t change anything with how he planned his future.

“He came back because he wanted to finish out whatever he started here,” Washington linebacker Cort Dennison said. “He realized we have a chance to do some good things this year as a team. he just wanted to come out and help us out. That’s the definition of Jake, someone who is going to put others in front of himself.”

The future is also on the minds of many in Pullman.

Wulff’s status beyond Saturday is tenuous at best. Washington State athletic director Bill Moos has gone silent on the topic, even with the Cougars coming off their first Pac-10 victory in nearly two years when they beat Oregon State 31-14 on Nov. 13.

The Cougars have shown progress in Wulff’s third season.

But it’s difficult to ignore Wulff’s 5-31 record.

“From where we started, I think we have come a long, long ways,” Wulff said. “When you compare the body of our team’s work last year and this year, I don’t know if there is a team that improved more that us in the Pac-10.”

If the Cougars are going to ruin the Huskies’ postseason hopes, it’ll largely rest on quarterback Jeff Tuel. The sophomore has thrown for 2,482 yards and 15 touchdowns, but it was his running that was the key in the upset of Oregon State. While Tuel threw for 157 yards and a score against the Beavers, he also rushed for a team-high 79 yards.

Tuel will be trying to solve a suddenly stout Washington defense that’s gone seven quarters without giving up a touchdown. The play of the Huskies defense allowed Locker enough time to engineer one final drive last week at California that resulted in Chris Polk’s 1-yard touchdown run on the final play of the game for a 16-13 win that finally brought a little relevance back to the Apple Cup.

Now, will Washington finish its late-season charge, or will the Cougars successfully play spoiler?

“You’ve got to treat it like a playoff game where you lose, you’re done,” Locker said. “That’s kind of the reality of it now.”

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