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The Early Glimpse: Cougs vs. Dawgs

IS THERE A tougher place to make your career starting quarterback debut than a rivalry game like the Apple Cup? It looks to me like Peyton Bender is about to find out, as the Washington State second-year freshman is the next man up if Luke Falk is unable to play Friday at Washington.

But if Bender's career turns out anything like the last guy who made his first career QB start against the Huskies, well, let's just say Cougar football is on its way into orbit.

In 1995, a tall, brash freshman named Ryan Leaf started his first college game against Washington. Put into the lineup when coach Mike Price had had enough of Chad Davis' attitude, Leaf did everything but win the game for Washington State, as the Huskies prevailed 33-30 in Seattle.

Leaf threw for 291 yards and two touchdowns, and led a scoring drive late in the game that tied the game at 30-30. Afterward, Price told reporters that "I don't know if I've ever seen a better performance by a freshman quarterback in this stadium."

So it's possible. If it's Bender, not Falk, on Friday, you don't have to bite your fingernails until they bleed. Like Leaf, Bender gained a little experience during the season before getting thrown into action as a starter.

About Washington: I had a good, close-up look at Washington (Friday, 12:30 p.m. Husky Stadium, FOX, no line) last Saturday covering the Huskies game against Oregon State. At first blush, the overarching reaction from many was, wow, the Beavers are terrible. And they are. It was as bad as Oregon State has looked in a couple decades, and that's saying something.

But I also think it cheapens how good Washington played in a 52-7 win, one that frankly could have been 152-7. The Huskies appear to be a team on the brink of breaking out. They've got some serious athletes on defense, and freshman quarterback Jake Browning, who has played like a freshman at times this season, is starting to get comfortable as UW's signal caller. They took out Oregon State with breathtaking ease.

But I've thought this about Washington a couple times this year. The Huskies look ready to turn the corner, then they throw in a clunker, like two weeks ago against Arizona State, when a 17-0 lead turned into a 27-17 loss. Talk about a choke job.

UW is a team that has trouble stringing together consecutive strong performances, which bodes well for the Cougars on Friday. Because the OSU game was lights out for the Huskies. Earlier this season, Washington beat USC 17-12, then came back and lost to Oregon and Stanford. Following a 49-3 hammering of Arizona, the Huskies followed up with a dull 34-23 home loss to Utah. Then there was the Arizona State debacle, when all was right for a half, and wrong as can be for the other half.

There's nothing that sticks out statistically about Washington. Which, I suppose, explains a 5-6 record. Of the 25 team statistical categories the NCAA tracks, UW has only two among the top 20: scoring defense (15th, 18.5 points per game) and punt returns (8th, 16.0 yards per return).

On second thought, if there's one category to land among the top 20, it's scoring defense. Giving up 18.5 points a game, in today's offensive-mad game, puts you in the hunt most Saturdays (or Fridays). The Dawgs have given up more than 28 points just three times this season -- 34 to Utah, 31 to Stanford, 30 to California.

As a comparison, Washington and Washington State have played six opponents in common this season. The Cougars gave up an average of 33.1 points to those teams, UW 20.6.

On the other hand, WSU's record against those same six foes is 4-2, while the Huskies' is 2-4.

Which just goes to show that football isn't all about defense.

The Huskies' biggest problem is offensive consistency. They've had some big performances, like 52 points against Oregon State, and 49 against Arizona. But in five of UW's 11 games, they haven't cracked 20 points.

On offense, Washington's best performer isn't Browning, but running back Myles Gaskin. The freshman running back has run for 983 yards this season, including six 100-yard games. Gaskin's high for the season is 155 yards against Oregon.

Browning has decent numbers for a first-year starter. He's 196 of 314 for 2,468 yards and 16 touchdowns, with nine picks. Washington's top receivers are Jaydon Mickens (45-516-2) and Joshua Perkins (32-461-3). Dante Pettis, who has 25 grabs this season, is one to watch returning punts, as he has returned two for touchdowns, including an 89-yarder against Oregon State.

Like the Cougars, Washington's defense tends to live in the opponent's backfield. The Huskies have 27 sacks and 75 tackles for loss this season. Linebacker Travis Feeney has 14.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks, while OLB Cory Littleton has 10 and five. Washington's top tackler is linebacker Azeem Victor, who has 84 stops. Cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Kevin King lead UW with three interceptions each.

The series: Last year was a very forgettable Apple Cup for Cougar fans, as Washington scored the first 31 points on the way to an easy 31-13 win in the coldest Apple Cup on record (19 degrees at kickoff). The Huskies have won five of the past six Apple Cups, with WSU's lone win coming in 2012.  Prior to that, the Cougars had won four of five games. Washington leads the 107-game series 69-32-6.

Familiar faces: As you would expect, Washington's roster is loaded with in-staters, including Gaskin, of Lynnwood. The coaching staff has plenty of Cougar blood. Linebackers coach Bob Gregory is a 1987 WSU grad who played linebacker. Special teams coordinator Jeff Choate was WSU's linebackers coach in 2012, while chief administrative officer Rich Rasmussen was Paul Wulff's tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator at WSU.

NOTABLE NOTE:

If it seems Washington State's defense is considerably improved over a year ago, you're not wrong. Statistically, there are significant improvements, based on national statistics. Here's how they compare:

Read Nick Daschel’s occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel

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