WSU

Washington 101: For all the apples; here's what you need to know about Washington State's opponent in the Apple Cup

A FEW INJURIES have taken some of the bite out of the Husky defense of late, but that didn't stop DL Elijah Qualls and others from being fairly vocal this week about wanting a crack at Luke Falk. From my vantage point, the Huskies might want to be careful what they wish for.

After all, UW has had the luxury of facing backup Cougar quarterbacks five of the last six meetings against WSU. That said, the Husky D is without question a formidable unit.  And in many fans' eyes, all is as it should be, talk or no talk. For Washington State and Washington, the season comes down to the Apple Cup. And it's winner take all.

Pictured above: WSU's Apple Cup uniform combo, with the Cougs going all crimson.
 
AT A GLANCE: Cougars (8-3) vs Huskies (10-1)

KICKOFF:
12:30 p.m. Pacific

WHERE:
Martin Stadium (32,952)

TELEVISION:
Fox

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

THE LINE:
Washington by 6

LAST MEETING:
Washington won 45-10 in Seattle in 2015.
 
THE SERIES:
Washington leads 70-32-6.

MATT MOORE's PREDICTION:
Cougs 28, Huskies 27

THE HUSKIES ON OFFENSE:
QB Jake Browning:  He enters the game as the No. 4-rated passer in college football. Browning is accurate (64 percent) and has a knack for improvisation, but he's still a second-year sophomore and that can mean bad decisions under pressure. Still, Browning has matured considerably in his second year under center, though he tends to wear his frustrations on his sleeve. This season, he has thrown for 2,870 yards and a league best 37 touchdowns, one more than Luke Falk.

RB Myles Gaskin: He trails only Christian McCaffrey for the Pac-12 rushing title with 1,130 ground yards (McCaffrey, 1,399 yds). Gaskin is not relied on much as a receiver, but he is very explosive out of the backfield: he's averaging 6.2 yards per rush attempt. Levon Coleman is one of the better backup running backs in the league.

WRs John Ross and Dante Pettis: Browning immediately found a favorite target with the return of Ross, who might be the fastest receiver in the conference. And that has made him dangerous this season on both short and vertical routes. Pettis is more of an intermediate route receiver, and a key target on third downs. Ross leads the conference with 15 touchdown receptions, and is second with 991 receiving yards.

Overview
This is the conference's top scoring offense, even though the Huskies only rank No. 5 in both rushing and passing yards in the Pac-12.  UW's tendency towards big plays, and a stellar efficiency rate in the red zone, make this offense far more potent than the one the Cougs faced last year. It still relies on defense to deliver good field position, but Browning is no longer just a game manager. He likes to attack and has kept UW generating a heady 7.3 yards per play, sixth best in the nation.

Strategy
This offense is all about speed. UW arguably has the fastest collection of skill position players in the conference. But one weakness is they are relatively small. Success for the Cougar D will hinge on them being the more physically dominant unit.  The key strategy revolves around stopping the big plays. Defending someone a fast as Ross is difficult. You have to keep a defender up close to guard the short screen routes, while leaving a safety dedicated to him for deep route protection. The rest of the team must be able to contain Gaskin while pressuring Browning. USC and Utah generated a good pass rush, and that seemed to make all the difference. WSU should get creative if necessary, I would like to see WSU using corner and safety blitzes if necessary to try and rattle Browning.

Key Stat
1st quarter scoring: UW has outscored its opponents 134-23 in the opening quarter, a larger margin than any other period. The Cougs need to start off the game strong on both sides of the ball to avoid putting themselves in an early hole.

THE HUSKIES ON DEFENSE:
CB Sidney Jones: Washington seems to kick out NFL caliber defensive backs faster Hope Solo kicks out doping violations. Jones was first-team all-conference last year, and he's likely to repeat. He leads the Husky defense with three interceptions and assuming it plays out as expected, his matchup against Gabe Marks should be epic. Falk will have to be careful testing Jones, and his CB counterpart Kevin King is nearly as good.

DT Elijah Qualls: He uses his 321-pound frame to eat up space, but he's also a solid pass rusher as well, generating three sacks and five tackles for loss.

S Budda Baker: UW's anchor in the secondary and another reigning all-conference pick.  Baker plays bigger than his size (5-10, 192) and is a natural play maker. He is at his best playing center field but is being used a surprise blitzer more and more as this season has gone on. He has seven TFL and two sacks.

Overview
Expect a fairly similar 3-4 defense to what Colorado ran last week. Mike Leach's offense often thrives on beating man coverage, but that gets difficult if the opponent has very good man-to-man DBs. Any time a front four can beat five on the o-line that spells trouble and UW has done that this season, although not as much in the latter half -- it took a hit when outside linebacker/DE Joe Mathis, UW's best pass rusher, was lost for the season. Then leading tackler Azeem Victor broke his leg and UW's defense has registered just four sacks the following four weeks. Still, the front four remain capable of putting the WSU offense in a hole if the Cougs don't win the battle at the line of scrimmage.  Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski seemed to make some adjustments last week as UW posted six sacks on ASU, but it remains to be seen if UW can generate the same kind of pressure against WSU.
 
Strategy
Luke Falk enters the game healthy and so too does his offensive line. UW is down its best pass rusher. When Falk has time to work, he is lethal. UW knows that, so don't be surprised to see them blitz more. The key for WSU from my chair is to either pick up the blitz or throw behind it. The Husky defenders have some of the best initial moves to the ball of any defense in the country, but they can be guilty of over committing. If the offensive line can buy time, Falk should be able to pick them apart with his progression as the defenders start to jump routes.

Key Stat
34 Sacks: UW's defense ranks 14th in the nation in quarterback sacks, but most of those came in the first half of the season.

THE HUSKIES ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
UW special teams units are dangerous. Ross and Pettis lend their speed to the return game, while kicker Cameron Van Winkle is one of UW's all-time leading scorers. He doesn't have the biggest leg in the world, but he is accurate.

FINAL THOUGHTS
-WSU has everything it wanted.  The Cougs are playing for the North title and it's at home. The forecast looks to be cold and perhaps a little rainy but other than that, this game is shaping up potentially as one for the ages. UW too got what they wanted. Several Husky defenders have been fairly vocal about wanting to face Falk so WSU fans will have no excuses. But UW fans may not recall the season Jake Locker got hurt, and UW went on to become the first team in conference history to go 0-12. A healthy Falk can be absolutely lethal. Careful what you wish for. I'm just sayin'.

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