By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports
The Saturday before Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days of the entire year. No, it's not because I am readying to take advantage of being married and getting two Thanksgiving dinners in one day. This Saturday is special for one reason. It is simply rivalry week in college football.
If you reside in Montana, and even if you do live under a rock, you know that rivalry week means Cat-Griz football. Those words alone get my juices flowing and my heart beating just a little faster. Normally, I could easily fill this entire sports page with my humble opinions, memories and prognostications for Cat-Griz week. But since the Griz will no doubt destroy the Cats this Saturday in Bozeman (I just can't help myself) and exact some revenge for last year's hiccup in Missoula, I am going to turn my attention to my second favorite rivalry game in college football, which also has a little Montana flavor.
As far as Division I football is concerned, I have always cheered for the Washington Huskies. Normally, I love to see the Huskies rip their rival Washington State Cougars in the Apple Cup game. However, recent years have caused me to put aside my love for the Huskies because of a couple of Washington State quarterbacks.
Even though I never knew Ryan Leaf personally, I enjoyed his success at Wazzu. How can't you be supportive of Montana-bred athletes who earn national recognition? But after he departed Pullman, I was right back to cheering for UW. That is until Havre native Matt Kegel jumped into the mix.
To be fair, Kegel's toughest moments of his career came in the Apple Cup. Despite never being the Cougs' starting quarterback until the beginning of this season, Kegel has seen plenty of action in the heated rivalry.
A very young Kegel played in the 2000 Apple Cup game and was hammered by the Huskies. Last season, he was forced into action in overtime as the Cougs had the Huskies on the ropes. Again, he struggled and the Huskies won their fifth-straight Apple Cup.
But 2003 has been a different story for Kegel and the Cougars. Kegel is finally the head signal caller in Pullman, and regardless of what anyone thinks, he has been simply outstanding all season long.
I have followed Matt's exploits since he went to Pullman five years ago. As the 2003 season began, I was annoyed at how little support Kegel got from the media and supposedly his own teammates. The Sporting News College Football preview began its article previewing the Cougs' season by saying that Kegel would only be the starting quarterback until he threw too many interceptions. The mag also claimed that few of his teammates believed he was capable to lead the Cougars to a successful 2003 campaign. There was an entire article in the Spokesman Review that basically alleged that Kegel was the starting quarterback because new WSU head coach Bill Doba believed that four years as a backup should be rewarded by being named the starter.
Of course, all of these words were in print with no quotes from players or Doba backing up any of these assumptions.
Consequently, Kegel's season began with a lot of doubt and much uncertainty. Since then, all he's done is lead the Cougars to a 9-2 overall record and a chance to clinch a share of the regular season Pac-10 title, if he can engineer a win over the Huskies on Saturday. He currently sits in the top 20 in all passing categories amongst Division I-A QBs and has passed for 2,694 yards and 18 touchdowns despite missing significant time due to injuries during the USC and Arizona State games.
The numbers don't lie and neither do the injuries. According to WSU officials, both of Kegel's shoulders have been dislocated this season. During ABC's coverage of the Cougs' win over Arizona State last Saturday, they showed a skeleton that highlighted all of his injuries - there were more places that were hurt than were healthy.
All of that and fans are still skeptical. In the Cougars' win over Oregon State in Pullman last month, an Internet site called Cougfan.com reported that the Wazzu student section harshly booed Kegel even as he celebrated a 36-30 triumph over a very good Beaver team. The site claims that alumni and students alike have believed all season that redshirt freshman Josh Swogger was the next great thing in Pullman, not Kegel.
It's possible that Swogger will go on to have a great career for the Cougs, but it is Kegel's time now. The only person who hasn't doubted Kegel thus far seems to be Doba. After the Cougs were hammered in Los Angeles by USC, Doba was asked if there had now become a quarterback controversy brewing in Pullman. He snapped back at the reporter by saying "Matt Kegel is a warrior on the football field and he showed more heart and determination than any player I have ever coached."
With a battered body and the skepticism of the Cougar nation piling on his back, Kegel will try to do something that no Cougar quarterback has done since his cousin Leaf was calling signals - beat the hated Huskies.
And I hope Kegel does it. I recently made a trek to Seattle to watch the Huskies, who are in the midst of a dismal season, take on the Oregon Ducks. The trip to Husky Stadium was everything I had hoped it would be - 72,000 plus fans, rain, a night game, and the Huskies pounding the Ducks. My night was almost perfect until some schmo I was sitting next to asked my wife and I where we were from. I told them I was from the same town in Montana as Matt Kegel. The guy responded by saying that he was glad Kegel was the starting quarterback for WSU because no matter how bad the Huskies were, they would surely win their sixth-straight Apple Cup with Kegel at the Cougars' helm.
That was it for me. Matt Kegel is a Havre product and I have enjoyed watching him have success and lead the Washington State Cougars to a remarkable Pac-10 run, despite what morons with typewriters and season tickets say. Kegel is a solid quarterback, and if given the chance, will make an NFL team next season. He is a huge part of the Cougars' success this season and they would not be here without him.
So this Husky fan is going to break tradition one more Saturday and hope like hell that Kegel and his teammates can pull one out in Seattle. As much as I hate to see it, Kegel has the chance to hand Washington its first losing season since the mid-1970s.
Matt Kegel deserves to leave his mark on the Apple Cup, a positive mark. And maybe, just maybe, he will get the respect that is long overdue.