Before we get into the analysis and prediction for the game, a recap of our preview articles this week:
Previewing WSU's Special Teams
So I think we all know the situation here - win or lose, the Huskies are going bowling and the Cougs aren't. Aside from some minor positioning for which bowl will choose the Huskies, it's mainly pride that's on the line in this game. For the Huskies, it's a chance to reiterate the dominance the UW has had in this series historically (67-31-6 all time) and continue Sark's 3-game win streak vs. the Cougars, as well as set up the team to get a psychologically important 8th win on the year and keep the upward momentum going under Sark. For the Cougs, this is their bowl game, a chance to salvage something of what has otherwise been a tire-fire of a season under new coach Mike Leach.
I'm not sure anyone expected things to be this rocky for the Cougs this year; sure, the defense had a lot of question marks that weren't helped by the attrition this off-season, but the offense - which was already pretty good and very pass-oriented - figured to only get better under Leach's much-ballyhooed "Air Raid" system. Instead, that transition has been rocky at best, and off-field distractions have stolen the limelight, what with Leach comparing his guys to "empty corpses" and "zombies", calling the play of both his lines "bordering on cowardice" and marching them en masse in front of assembled media to answer for themselves, to the biggest distraction - star WR Marquess Wilson quitting the team and then accusing Leach in a carefully crafted press release of "physical, emotional and verbal abuse".
Yikes. And what might even be worse than all of that - they lost to Colorado, a team that ranks as one of the worst teams the Pac-8/10/12 has ever seen.
So why am I not 100% confident that the Huskies - rolling along now in the 2nd half of the season and playing their best football - will win? Because I'm a veteran watcher of Apple Cups, and while the favored team usually wins, there have been some notable exceptions.
- 1982 - A 9-1 Husky team ranked #5 and needing only a win over a 2-7-1 Cougar team to go to their 3rd Rose Bowl in a row instead loses 24-20;
- 1985 - A 6-4 Husky team with a chance to tie for the Pac-10 title instead fell to a 3-7 Cougar team, 21-20 in one of the coldest Apple Cups on record (and it was in Seattle);
- 2008 - A bad 0-11 Husky team with lame-duck coach Ty Willingham was still favored over the even worse 1-10 Cougars of Paul Wulff, a group that had suffered 5 defeats by 49+ points, but managed to lose 16-13 to cement to most infamous season in Husky history
And of course the upsets have happened the other way too, though infrequent (because the Cougs have rarely entered the game with a significantly better team), including 3-straight from 2001-2003 where the Huskies knocked off the Cougs, including the 2002 game where the 6-5 Huskies prevented the 9-1 Cougs from winning the Pac-10 outright.
So while the favored team wins most of the time, there have been enough notable upsets at the hands of the Cougs - especially in Pullman - to leave me a bit nervous.
On paper, the Huskies shouldn't have much problem winning. The Cougs don't fare well in advanced metrics like FEI (#112 offense, #70 defense, compared to the Huskies #63 offense, #33 defense) or S&P (#105 offense, #95, compared to the Huskies #61 offense, #22 defense). Nor do they look good when you consider most of the match-ups - facing a surging UW running game, the Cougs are allowing 171.3 ypg and 4.1 ypc; the Coug offense, built almost entirely around the passing game, ranks 100th in Pass Efficiency, and faces a UW defense that ranks 16th. About the only match-up that clearly favors the Cougs is their pass rush (#11 with 2.9 per game) vs. the UW pass-protection (#100, allowing 2.8 per game). And to top it off, the Cougs appear to be missing their top defensive player in OLB/DE Travis Long and co-starter at QB Connor Halliday, meaning they're one Jeff Tuel injury away from putting former walk-on David Gilbertson (son of Husky coaching legend Keith Gilbertson) in at QB.
Best-case scenario, the Huskies avoid their early-game stumbles and score on their first three drives while forcing the Cougs to punt and turn the ball over; the early big lead completely deflates whatever motivation the Cougs had for the game and they roll over, watching former commit Bishop Sankey rumble for 175+ and backup Kendyl Taylor for 100 more, with Keith Price coolly efficient and deadly throwing to Austin Seferian-Jenkins & Kasen Williams, with Jaydon Mickens having a break-out game. Nothing goes right for the Cougs, including seeing Desmond Trufant (youngest brother of Cougar legend Marcus Trufant) return a pick-6 to put a dagger in WSU hearts, and the Huskies roll, 48-3.
Worst-case, the same old early-game bugaboos rear their ugly head as the Huskies commit costly penalties and commit ghastly turnovers and an injured Trufant can only watch as the Coug passing game strikes early to build a 2-score lead that gives WSU belief. KP reverts to his mid-season struggles and carelessness with the ball, and an inspired effort by the Coug defense bottles up Sankey often. The Huskies make a game of it, but the early mistakes prove to be too much and the Cougs hang on to win an ugly one 20-17.
So what will happen? As much as I've been conditioned to respect the possibility of an upset in this game, I just don't see it - I think the Huskies continue their confident play of late, and even with some sloppiness in terms of penalties, I think they'll be able to wear down the Coug defense behind Sankey and set up a lot of opportunities in the play-action passing game as ASJ & Kasen have big games. It will only take a little bit of early success by the Dawgs to deflate a fragile Cougar psyche. On defense, the Cougs will get some yardage against us but find it tough in the red-zone, and Tuel will cough the ball up at least once, and I could see a couple hard hits on sacks by Josh Shirley knocking Tuel out of the game and a green Gilbertson forced into action. I think the Huskies end up coasting in this one, winning 37-17.