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Washington State Game Preview

The Washington Huskies took care of business against Arizona State, crushing a 10-game losing streak to the Sun Devils and solidifying their first 10-win season since 2000-2001 all at once. Now the only thing standing between the Huskies and a PAC-12 championship game appearance is the biggest Apple Cup college football has ever seen.

In 2008 the Apple Cup was played between two teams without a win in conference play. Where has the time gone? It’s 2016 and the winner of this year's matchup between the Cougars and the Huskies will represent the north in the PAC-12 championship.

The Cougars are undefeated against FBS opponents at home this season, and any home field advantage they have will be magnified against their arch-rival. This is what a rivalry is supposed to be like: two good teams competing for something important, like a spot in the conference championship. This is sure to be a slugfest and should be a blast to watch. Here are a few Cougars to keep an eye on.


Players to Watch

#4 JR 6’4” 216-pound QB Luke Falk

2016 stats: 380 of 532 for 3935 yards, 71.4% completion, 36 TD, 7 INT, 153.3 efficiency rating

Scoop: The Cougars have won 17 games in just less than two years since Luke Falk took over as the starting quarterback in 2015. Washington State hasn’t had that much success in consecutive years since 2002 and 2003. Falk doesn’t have a huge arm, but he is accurate and gets rid of the ball quickly. He ranks 103rd nationally in yards per completion. His game is to chip away, completing passes underneath, moving the chains and creating long, sustainable drives.

#25 JR 5’9” 201-pound RB Jamal Morrow

2016 stats: 82 carries for 543 yards, 6.6 YPC, 44 receptions for 468 yards, 9 total TD

Scoop: Jamal Morrow is having his best season of football by quite a bit, accounting for over 1000 yards of total offense and nearly 10 touchdowns. He’s a smaller back who has pretty good speed, but can also slip out of a few tackles. His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield makes him that much better in this system.

#32 FR 5’11 199-pound RB James Williams

2016 stats: 86 carries for 531 yards, 6.2 YPC, 6 TD, 41 receptions for 284 yards, 1 receiving TD

Scoop: James Williams has the most carries of all the Cougars, largely because he sort of had the hot hand leading up to their game against Colorado; Williams had over 10 carries for 70 yards in each of the three games prior to their loss in Boulder. He’s similar to Jamal Morrow in build and skill set. His ability to make plays on the ground and through the air this early in his career makes you think he’ll have a pretty solid career in this offense.

#23 JR 6’0” 227-pound RB Gerard Wicks

2016 stats: 78 carries for 441 yards, 5.7 YPC, 11 TD, 25 receptions for 184 yards, 1 TD

Scoop: Gerard Wicks is one touchdown away from cracking WSU’s top five in career rushing scores. He compliments Morrow and Williams nicely with his size. He’s been a consistent fixture in their offense, dropping below seven carries in a game just three times this season. He doesn’t hurt you as much in the passing game, but when the Cougs are on the goal line they like to call his number.

#9 SR 6’0” 190-pound WR Gabe Marks

2016 stats: 74 receptions for 755 yards, 10.2 YPC, 12 TD

Scoop: Gabe Marks ranks first in career receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns in school history. He’s a seasoned veteran who runs nice routes and has great hands. He’s Falk’s favorite target, especially in the red zone, and will be targeted plenty this Friday.

#1 SO 6’1” 185-pound WR Tavares Martin

2016 stats: 57 receptions for 671 yards, 11.8 YPC, 7 TD

Scoop: Sophomore standout Tavares Martin came all the way from the opposite corner of the country to catch passes as a Cougar. He’s done that a lot this year, and he’s done it well. The long, speedy receiver caught 12 passes against Boise State early in the season and since then has been a consistent presence in the Cougar offense. He’ll help shoulder the burden of River Cracraft’s absence.

#55 SR 6’2” 252-pound DE Hercules Mata'afa

2016 stats: 42 total tackles, 12.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 7 QB hits

Scoop: Hercules Mata’afa has more than just a cool name; he’s an aggressive, speedy edge rusher who can do serious damage in the backfield. His four sacks don’t accurately represent how good a pass rusher he is, although his addition; seven quarterback hits help tell the story.

#47 JR 6’0” 235-pound LB Peyton Pelluer

2016 stats: 80 total tackles, 7.5 TFL, 1.0 sack

Scoop: Right in the middle of WSU’s aggressive run defense is an aggressive linebacker in Peyton Pelluer. The Skyline High School alum is among the best tacklers in the conference and knows how to make plays behind the line of scrimmage as well.

#31 JR LB 6’1” 224-pound LB Isaac Dotson

2016 stats: 52 total tackles, 5.0 TFL, 0.5 sack, 2 INT,

Scoop: Another linebacker from UW’s side of the state, Isaac Dotson has a pretty versatile skill set. He’s a solid tackler; his 52 tackles rank fourth on the team. What makes him even more dangerous is his ability to play  in coverage. He spent time playing nickel last year and those skills translated nicely to his roll as a linebacker. 

#18 SR 6’0” 205-pound S Shalom Luani

2016 stats: 51 total tackles, 8.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 4 INT

Scoop: Shalom Luani is as multi-talented as they come. He’s the only player in the PAC-12 that’s ranks in the top 20 for tackles for a loss as well as passes defended. If that doesn’t speak to his versatility then I don’t know what does. He’s a talented, aggressive safety as well as an experienced leader of the defense.


What does the Cougar Offense look like?

The Cougar Air Raid offense has scored more points than any PAC-12 team, with the exception of the Washington Huskies. They’ll line up with three or four receivers and utilize every yard of width the field has to offer.

Luke Falk is a great quarterback for the Cougars’ system. He delivers an accurate ball, completing over 70 percent of his passes this season, and takes good care of the rock too: he throws only one interception per 76 throws, which would be the equivalent of three-and-a-half or four games in any other offense. He’s second in the PAC-12 in passing yards per game and passing touchdowns. That doesn’t mean he’s got a cannon attached to his right shoulder. He gets the ball out pretty quickly and works well on quick hitters and intermediate routes. His ability to find open receivers makes up for his lack of top-end arm strength. 

Washington State really likes to spread their offense out, giving room for their receivers to get separation. They have three receivers that rank in the top-10 in the PAC-12 for receptions and receiving yards per game. Gabe Marks, Falk’s favorite target, is as reliable as they come and a threat in the red zone. He has 36 receiving touchdowns in his career, 27 of which have come since the start of 2015. Tavares Martin is a speedy receiver who can keep defenses honest with his ability to make plays downfield. True freshman Isaiah Johnson-Mack will see an increase in targets in River Cracraft’s absence.

What’s most surprising about the Cougar offense this year is their ability to run the ball. Washington State currently has more rushing yards than they’ve allowed. If that holds, it will be the first time that’s happened since before Mike Leach took over as head coach. Their offensive line wides up with really wide splits, which has always confused me, but I guess who am I to criticize if it’s been working for them. The three-man committee of Jamal Morrow, James Williams, and Gerard Wicks have only lost 17 yards rushing this year. They simply don’t get bottled up behind the line of scrimmage. Wicks is the biggest of the three, making him most useful in short yardage and goal line situations. His 11 rushing touchdowns are tied for fifth-most in school history. Williams and Morrow are smaller, shiftier backs who are also assets in the passing game. Together, those three backs combine for around 22 carries per game.


What does the Cougar Defense look like?

Washington State’s defense has taken another step up this year under Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch, allowing only 25.5 points per game. If you discard their 45-42 loss to Eastern Washington at the beginning of the season, the Cougs allow less than 20 points per game at home.

Their biggest improvement defensively has been their ability to stop the run. WSU allows a conference best 129.5 yards per game on the ground: they were the seventh-best run defense in the PAC-12 last year.

The Cougs’ success against the run starts up front with their stellar defensive end Hercules Mata’afa. His 12 tackles for a loss are among the top four in the PAC-12. The rest of the Cougar defensive line has some respectable size and can get push at the point of attack. The reinstatement of Robert Barber can only help this already solid unit.

Peyton Pelluer is the unquestioned leader of the linebacker corps. He’s an aggressive, physical tackler who patrols the middle of the Cougar defense. Isaac Dotson, who played a lot of nickel and safety earlier in his career, has been a monster this season as a starting linebacker. He’s been productive against the run, ranking fourth on the team in tackles and fifth in tackles for loss. But his ability to play in coverage as a linebacker has been invaluable. He’s tied for second in the team in interceptions and also has two passes defensed on the season. He didn’t play against Colorado and his status for the Apple Cup is uncertain. 

WSU’s secondary has been the weaker part of the defense. They have the 10th best pass defense in the PAC-12. That being said, they still have a few playmakers. Shalom Luani may be the best defensive player on the team. He just does it all from his spot at safety. His eight and half tackles for loss are the second most on the team and he leads the team in interceptions and pass breakups. He seems to be everywhere all at once. Robert Taylor has been a solid safety as well. He’s not as good in coverage as Luani, but he’s a very solid tackler and makes his impact in that way. Darrien Molton is the second leading tackler on the team, which isn’t necessarily always a good thing from the cornerback position. However, he’s solid in pass coverage and can hit pretty well for a 175-pounder.

Their depth chart suggests a nickel base defense with three down linemen and three linebackers, but from what I’ve seen they’re pretty multiple in their defensive fronts. Rush linebacker Dylan Hanser will put his hand on the ground occasionally and act as a fourth defensive linemen. Their whole defensive line stems sometimes just before snap to create some confusion.

The Cougar defense no longer lags behind their offense. This is a solid group that plays even better at home.


Keys to the game

Washington State

1. Pressure Browning - The weather alone will be uncomfortable. Forcing a lot of pressure early on the UW quarterback will make it that much harder for the Huskies to settle in on the road against the Cougars.

2. Make Washington one dimensional - The Trojans stymied the Huskies' ground attack and forced them to throw the ball a lot in the second half. We all know how that game ended. Making any team one dimensional helps guarantee defensive success.

3. Keep the Huskies honest - The Cougars should force Washington to respect their run game. The Huskies allow 3.5 yards per carry, which is best in the PAC-12. If WSU can’t pick up at least a few yards at a time on the ground, the Dawgs will feel a lot more comfortable playing aggressive in coverage with their multitude of playmakers in the secondary.


1. Big time receiver production - In the six games that the Cougars have given up 30-plus points they’ve allowed five different receivers to accumulate more than 100 receiving yards. The Huskies have had a 100-yard receiver seven times in the past six games. If the key to scoring points against WSU is having productive pass catchers, Washington’s success with John Ross and Dante Pettis is encouraging.

2. Generate pass rush - Elijah Qualls said after the game against Arizona State that the coaches encouraged the players to go all out in pass rush and to worry less about contain than normal. If that’s true and it worked, then the Huskies might as well do the same thing against the Cougars, especially because Luke Falk isn’t much of a threat to scramble.

3. Tackle well - It’s kind of a no-brainer, but especially with WSU’s propensity to just chip away for seven yards play after play, the Huskies will want to make sure they wrap up.


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