Washington 101: WSU road warriors once more

THE HUSKIES WERE forecast to have a disappointing season in 2015, and they pretty much have. But Las Vegas has not put out a line yet on the Apple Cup and if nothing else, that alone should remind CougFans WSU must take nothing for granted. The most oft-discussed matchup this week is UW’s defense vs. WSU’s offense. But there are many other factors to consider.

An opening loss to Boise State hurt Chris Peterson's reputation a bit. And extending the losing streaks against Oregon and Arizona State -- combined with more questionable in-game coaching decision piled on top of last season’s -- have only compounded the effect.

But to be fair, from the moment they tabbed a true freshmen to play quarterback the Huskies knew (or should have known) this would be a rebuilding year. I'm just not sure everybody was on board for it given the level of angst seen around cyberspace the past several weeks. 

Important Note: I am doing my scouting report this week under the assumption Cougar QB Luke Falk is out, regardless of Tuesday’s report by The News Tribune.  I have no insider info, it is just the safest assumption to make.  And given the history of this series illustrated here on CF.C, it was an assumption Cougar fans should have been making a long time ago.


No. 20 Cougars (8-3) vs Huskies (5-6)
AT A GLANCE

KICKOFF:
12:30 p.m. PT

WHERE:
Husky Stadium (72,500)

TELEVISION:
FOX

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LINE:
None, given the uncertainty on if Falk will start/play.

LAST MEETING:
Washington won 31-13 in Pullman in 2014.

THE SERIES:
Washington leads 69-32-3.

MATT MOORE's PREDICTION:
Cougs 21, UW 20

 

THE HUSKIES ON OFFENSE:
QB Jake Browning:  Browning may be a freshman, but he is a freshman with 10 starts under his belt.  In his first season under center he has been inconsistent but serviceable: throwing for 2,468 yards, 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions.  He is also an effective scrambler who can eat up yards when the play breaks down. He has played his best in the second half of the season, but some of his biggest weaknesses have gone hand in hand with it.

RB Myles Gaskin: UW's lead offensive weapon is Gaskin, another freshman.  He leads the team with 983 rushing yards and impressive 5.8 average per carry.  He has breakaway speed and is highly effective at yards after the carry despite his 5-9, 192-pound frame.

WR Jaydon Mickens: Mickens leads a weak receiver corps with a reputation for dropping passes.  Mickens has 45 catches for 516 yards and two touchdowns. 

Overview
The Huskies are at their best when they are being led by their defense, but when the offense is on the field it is feast or famine.  They do not generate drives with regularity but manage an effective number of explosive plays.  Gaskin is the workhorse, but offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith is giving Browning more of the reigns every week.

Strategy
WSU faced a similar offense in UCLA, but UW is not as productive.  The key is containing Gaskin.  Washington beat WSU last year by making the big play and the same could hold true if they again can’t limit the big play.  Gaskin is hard to tackle and the Cougs cannot allow him to rip off yardage in big chunks – and the Cougs must hold an edge better than they have at times this season.  Browning is a concern but watching him on tape, he is not a complete quarterback yet – nor should he be expected to be.  He does not throw effectively over linebackers and does not like to throw while moving to his left.  WSU could benefit by keeping the linebackers up and forcing Browning to try and beat the WSU safeties.  The Huskies may utilize a lot of delayed draws by Browning to get a lot of cheap yardage the way other quarterbacks have against the Cougar defense. 

Key Stats
First downs and third-down conversion percentage: UW averages only 19 first downs per game – they do not generate an impressive number of drives, they rely on the big plays.  Only Oregon State has fewer first downs per game in the Pac-12. The Huskies’ third-down conversion percentage is 35.5 percent. That is 100th nationally out of 127 FBS teams and again, only Oregon State has fared worse this season in the Pac-12.

 

THE HUSKIES ON DEFENSE:

Players to Know
LB Victor Azeem: UW's leading tackler, Azeem is a natural disruptor in the middle.  At 240 pounds, he is also  a very heavy hitter.

BUCK Travis Feeney: A pass rush specialist who will bring a lot of pressure on the Cougar quarterback.  The senior leads the team with seven sacks and three forced fumbles.

S Budda Baker:  UW's anchor in the secondary.  Baker is only a sophomore but plays like a veteran.  He is a bit undersized, just a  5-10, 178-pounder, but he is a natural playmaker.

Overview
UW has been a surprised on defense and have held opponents to just 18.5 points per game, good for 15th in the country.  But as with the offense, they are somewhat big play oriented and struggle to contain drives once they get going.  They rank 42nd in first downs surrendered and 47th in third-down conversion percentage.  Even middling offenses like Utah’s and Arizona State’s have worn UW down by the fourth quarter. And that brings up another point – UW’s defense was stronger earlier this season. Their last few games, they have shown slippage in the second halves. But while this team lacks the pro-level defensive line they had a year ago, Baker, Victor, and Feeney are clear All-Pac 12 candidates.  They become harder to avoid as the field shortens.

Strategy
The basic strategy for beating the Air Raid is to get pressure with four, and drop seven into coverage.  UW did it effectively last year against the Cougs, but they had the personnel to do it.  This year's Husky defense will attempt to do the same thing but WSU brings more weaponry to the table.  The additional threat brought by the Cougar running backs, combined with the desire to test Bender's passing, might well burn them.  (Again, for purposes of this scouting report, I am assuming Falk is out). Bender might be green, but his receivers aren't.  Bender just needs to be patient and deliberate.  He cannot take unnecessary chances in this game and turn the ball over to keep the Huskies in it (that goes for the receivers and running backs too – Husky defenders will be hoping for lax ball security).   A solid team effort by the Cougs on offense wins this game, even if it  proves to be low scoring. Solid red zone offense is essential.  WSU's best matchup is Dom and Marks against UW's corners.  Bender needs to put his trust in them.

Key Stat
Red zone defense: The Huskies rank 27th nationally in red zone defense, tops in the Pac-12. The Cougar O is fifth nationally in red zone offense, tops in the Pac-12. Something, as they say, has to give.

 

THE HUSKIES ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Cameron “don't call me Rip” Van Winkle has made 12 of 15 field goals this year, but none beyond 49 yards.  UW has neither generated nor given up a special teams touchdown this year.

FINAL THOUGHTS

-The big X factor in this game is trick plays.  It is difficult to say what Peterson will do, but you can be assured he will try something.  In a game like this, trick plays can be the difference maker, or they can completely blow up and come back to bite the team that takes the gamble.

- Cougar fans looking forward to the prospect of knocking UW out of a bowl game but even a 5-7 Husky team is probably still going bowling -- the sheer number of bowl slots available headed into Week 12 mean that several 5-7 teams will get bids, and UW is likely to be one of them. 

-WSU has won four out of five road games in 2015, continuing a huge trend in the Mike Leach era.  Three of those wins came against bowl bound opponents.  This team has risen to the occasion big time this season, and they get another chance to prove it on Friday.


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