SEATTLE — The last time the Apple Cup held any relevance for Washington was in 2003, when the Huskies upset a Washington State team ranked in the top 10.
Thanks to the late drama in their 16-13 win at California on Saturday, this week's rivalry game with Washington State finally holds some meaning again for the Huskies.
Simply put: win and go to a bowl game for the first time since 2002, perhaps the Holiday Bowl or Sun Bowl depending on how the Pac-10's allotment of bowl teams breaks down.
It's been Washington's goal since the season started, but coach Steve Sarkisian doesn't want the quest for that desired bowl berth to overshadow the importance or the rivalry.
"Obviously, we'd all like to get to a bowl game. But more than that, this week, is playing the Apple Cup. And I don't want to lose sight of that," Sarkisian said on Monday. "I don't want to say we're playing Washington State to get to a bowl game; we're playing Washington State for the Apple Cup."
The Huskies were still relishing their last-second victory over the Golden Bears that kept California from becoming bowl eligible and kept alive Washington's hopes for a trip somewhere warm. Struggling on offense all day, the Huskies went 79 yards in 10 plays on the final drive, helped by a 46-yard pass from quarterback Jake Locker to Jermaine Kearse that got the Huskies into scoring range.
Washington eventually ended up with second-and-goal at the California 1 and that's when it briefly got worrisome for the Huskies. Locker tried to sneak in for the winning score on second and third downs, only to be denied each time.
Sarkisian said Monday he decided as soon as the Huskies reached the 1 that they would go for it if fourth-down arrived. He thought Locker was going to get in on the second sneak attempt, but decided to go with a power run play off the right side of the offensive line on the final play.
With the right side caved in, Chris Polk easily ran in for the winning score, setting off a wild celebration in the back of the California end zone.
"I felt like we had enough momentum going and we were executing at a high enough level, the look in our kids' eyes was such that we were going to get it done," Sarkisian said.
The win gave Washington consecutive victories for the first time this season. A win over Washington State would give them three straight victories for the first time since 2006 and back-to-back Apple Cup wins for the first time since winning six straight between 1998 and 2003.
Three weeks ago, when Washington had finished a gauntlet of facing Arizona, Stanford and Oregon on consecutive weeks, Sarkisian made a point of reminding his players that their preseason goal of reaching a bowl was still obtainable. The Huskies' first step was beating UCLA 24-7 on Nov. 18, and the next step was taken with the victory over California.
It was just two years ago that the Huskies were 0-10 going into the Apple Cup in Pullman. Washington lost 16-13 in double overtime that day and finished the year 0-12, the worst mark in school history.
A win on Saturday in Pullman would emphatically punctuate the turnaround the Huskies have made in just two seasons.
"Because of its importance, it's like, as coach (Sarkisian) told us three weeks, each game now, 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."