Washington 101

SEATTLE—It was a season full of promise, the harvest year for the first group of <b>Rick Neuheisel's </b> recruits. Players like <b>Cody Pickett, Rich Alexis, Jerome Stevens, Greg Carothers, Terry Johnson, Owen Biddle, Marquis Cooper</b> and <b>Reggie Williams</b> were expected to leave a shining hallmark on UW football history in their final Husky campaign. In fact, words like "Heisman" and "National Championship" were even being uttered around Montlake just three short months ago.

Then, what seemed like the impossible became a harsh reality. Coach Neuheisel got fired, UW was blown out in its opening contest, and Husky football started down a spiral of disaster the likes of which most Dog fans have not lived long enough to remember. There was the 39 unanswered points against UCLA, then the unfathomable loss to Nevada, a humiliating blowout by USC, another head scratching loss at Arizona, and then the 54-7 shellacking by California last week.

Now with a coaching staff on the hot seat and fans calling for the heads of their former heroes, the Huskies must find some way to salvage their dignity.

WHEN: Saturday, November 22, 3:30 p.m.
WHERE: Husky Stadium
TV: Live on Fox Sports Northwest
LINE: None

Washington State enters the 96th Apple Cup at the apex of an incredible three-year run. The Cougars are currently eighth in both polls and need just one more victory to secure an unprecedented third straight 10-win season. But amidst all this success, the Cougars have failed to beat their cross-state rivals even once. The current crew of 22 seniors knows this Saturday will be their last chance and they are ready to brawl.

Overview: The Huskies run a pretty standard pro-set with a little more balance than we saw last year. The running game has shown marked improvement from the previous two campaigns but the passing efficiency has suffered. QB Pickett has had trouble hitting long routes and a lack of depth in his receivers has made his passing more predictable. They rank near the middle of the conference in most offensive categories averaging around 400 yards and 26 points per game. They throw a lot of quick outs and slants. When running the ball, UW has struggled with a slow offensive line that has been ineffective on most stunts and traps. Defenses simply out run them. Expect them to keep things more north and south this week with an occasional pitch out or option play to keep WSU honest.

Strategy: The general formula teams have used to beat UW is to shut down their running game and pressure Pickett. The rest of their offense seems to crumble in the aftermath. They tend to spread the field with three and four wide receivers when they get into trouble, but have had very limited success. Defenses simply haven't had to respect any receivers other than Williams and Charles Frederick. Pickett also has had trouble on long passes and tends to hang his throws too high. As a result UW has stopped running a lot of deep slants. WSU defensive backs should keep their focus on Williams and Frederick and defend fly patterns when they sense deep routes coming.

Players to Know:
Cody Pickett, QB: Who could have guessed that fans who were once nominating Pickett for Heisman would be calling for him to be benched before the season's end. Through 11 games he has thrown for 2,860 yards and 13 touchdowns against 11 interceptions but he is forcing the ball more every week.

Reggie Williams, WR: Williams has been the bane of WSU's existence in the last two meetings catching 23 balls for 372 yards. Luckily this may be the final outing for RW in a UW uniform as he is expected to turn pro after this season and the Dogs not expected to make a bowl game. He has 82 catches for 1,050 yards this year.

Kenny James & Shelton Sampson, RBs: The freshmen James and Sampson are the only two viable running backs on the UW roster. Both are quick and reliable but aren't ready to carry the offense on their shoulders. James is suffering from an ankle sprain and a thigh bruise but should start. Sampson is lightning quick but lacks any real power in his running. The two combine for 724 yards and nine touchdowns this year.

Charles Frederick, WR: The combination of Williams and Frederick is arguably the most dangerous receiving duo in the conference. Unfortunately there is zero depth behind them. Teams have exploited this fact all year. Still, Frederick is a stud and is very good at creating yardage after the play so the Cougs need to make him a marked man.

Overview: The Huskies operate a 3-4 defense that has been deteriorating rapidly of late. They have been losing the battle at the line of scrimmage causing them to give up tons of rushing yards and giving plenty of time for opposing quarterbacks to pass. Over the past two weeks they have surrendered 630 rushing yards, which should be the primary focus of this week's practices. The husky safeties have a tendency to bite on play action passes and miss delayed handoffs.

Strategy: Cal had tremendous success running the football last week because of two factors. No. 1: they made UW respect their passing right away, and 2: they took control of the center of the line of scrimmage. As a result, Cal was free to run the ball up the gut out in spread formations all day long. WSU should attempt to do the same. Look for UW to adjust by keeping the linebackers up close and the safeties back. UW's corners also offered Cal's receivers too much space up front last week so expect them to play up a bit, too. WSU should counter by pressing with deep routes early in their drives. Straight fly patterns may work well as the safeties will look to defend the center of the field against the slot and tight end receivers. UW rarely blitzes but their linebackers fake it often, so Cougar QBs Matt Kegel and Josh Swogger shouldn't buy into the fakes.

Players to Know:
Terry Johnson, DT: Johnson has been one of the few pass-rushing threats UW has had up front. He has nine sacks this year, although he has been pretty quiet over the past month.

Marquis Cooper, LB: Cooper leads all Huskies with 84 tackles this year. He is among the fastest and most active members of the UW defense and is one of the few that seems to impose his will on the game.

Derek Johnson, CB: Johnson is the top Husky defensive back and the only reliable one of late. He leads the team with five interceptions and will likely defend Devard Darling. With the rest of the secondary dangerously thin from injuries, expect him to be left on an island all day.

Entering the season, a pair of true freshmen kickers were expected to be one of the few weak points on the team. As it turns out they have become one of the few strengths. Evan Knudsen has struggled with his field goals getting blocked, but when left untouched his kicks are accurate. Garth Erickson has been a sound punter averaging 42.5 yards per punt despite some troubles from his long snapper. Frederick can be dangerous on kick returns.

After getting burned by Williams so badly the last two years it may be difficult for WSU defensive coordinator Robb Akey to focus on the Husky running game, but that is exactly what he must do. Keep the linebackers' focus on what's in front of them. Let the secondary worry about stopping Reggie. When the huskies can't run the ball or protect the passer, it seems to remove their big weapons from the equation anyway.

This will be an emotional game for both teams, perhaps even more so than last year. Bragging rights mean more than ever right now. To the WSU players because they've never had them. To UW because it's all they have left. Make no mistake, Washington has looked like an entirely different team when pride is on the line. The Nevada, Cal and Arizona games were generally heartless efforts, but Oregon and Oregon State were utterly destroyed by the Huskies. For whatever reason, the "Northwest Championship" matters to these guys. While the Cougars have been playing for bigger things recently, they need to keep their focus on UW, not the BCS. The team that can direct their emotions into their play and still keep their composure will win.

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