When Halliday went down, most Husky fans seemed to respond with sadness and disgust at a career ended prematurely and improperly. However, upon looking forward to the Apple Cup, it was hard not to think "man, I'm not sure what Halliday would have done to this secondary."
Turns out Luke Falk (RSFr., 6-4, 208) is poised to give Washington the run for its money that we nervously expected Halliday to deliver. Washington will not get some sort of free pass as a result of a terrible injury, and that's better for everyone involved.
Considering that Falk originally walked on at WSU and started this year as a third string QB before the transfer of presumed backup Tyler Bruggman, the kid has absolutely balled out as a starter.
He has completed 129 of 194 passes (66%) for 1504 yards (7.4ypa), 11 TDs, and 5 INTs. Those totals are good for a QB rating of 145.19, almost identical to Halliday's 145.05 this season.
However, the vast majority of those interceptions came just last week in a 31-52 loss to ASU. Falk completed 45 of 74 passes (so no, Leach is not throttling down the volume passing) for 601 passing yards, 3 TDs and 4 INTs.
Hats off to the kid for averaging over 8.0 yards per passing attempt over 74 attempts, but tossing four picks in a single contest is rarely a winning strategy no matter how easily you navigate the first 80 or so yards of the field.
That performance, together with two more efficient showings against USC and Oregon State, paint a picture of a classic Air Raid quarterback. Falk is going to drop back over and over again, and he is going to target a wide array of receivers, often arranged in four or five-receiver sets.
No matter how hard they play, it's unlikely the Huskies will be able to hold Falk under 300 yards passing. However, it's also a near certainty that over the course of 35-70 passing attempts, the first-year starter will heave at least 2-4 pickable passes.
Perhaps more than in any other game this season, Washington's vaunted pass rush will be key to success. Falk is not a threat to run, and his offensive line will be asked to protect him from the pass rush over and over and over again.
Projected stating line: LT Joe Dahl (Jr., 6-4, 303), LG Gunnar Eklund (Jr., 6-7, 305), C Riley Sorensen (So., 6-4, 321), RG Eduardo Middleton (So., 6-5, 318), RT Jacob Seydel (Jr., 6-6, 295).
First of all, this is a much bigger offensive line than I might have guessed. Sorensen in particular is pretty massive for a center. Just a fun fact: Eklund was playing LT in last year's Apple Cup. He was the guy Kikaha dominated en route to his picture-perfect strip sack. He has played guard since that game.
The Cougars have allowed 32 sacks, tied for 2nd worst in the conference (OSU is 12th with 34). For context, Colorado is the best with only 20 allowed and Washington is tied for 4th with 25.
This might look bad for the WSU O-line at first, but for such a pass-heavy offense it's helpful to think in terms of sacks allowed/pass attempt (per dropback would be better, but passing attempts is just an easier stat to find). WSU attempted 722 passes, so they allowed a sack for every 22 passing attempts. Washington has only attempted 205 passes, so they've actually fared far worse in allowing a sack for every 8.2 passing attempts.
Far from scientific, given that by definition you cannot be sacked on a passing attempt and Washington scrambles out of drop backs more often than WSU, but it's fair to say that the Cougars allow the QB to be sacked at a far lower rate than do the Huskies.
It's tough to comment on run blocking when it is such a low priority for the offense. Over 225 attempts (OSU is 11th in the conference with 344), WSU backs have only gained 457 yards (2.03 ypc) and 5 touchdowns. Those numbers are god awful, and the offensive line deserves some of the blame, but it's tough for me to rag on them for failing to execute an element of the offense that is clearly overlooked.
Who knows how the run blocking would be if this unit spent the off season preparing to pound the ball 30 times a game.
Not even trying to rag on WSU when I say that I do not understand why any recruit commits to play running back in this offense provided they have other Pac-12 offers. Jamal Morrow (RSFr., 5-8, 187) has started every contest this season. He has totaled 85 carries for 346 yards (4.07) and 0 rushing scores. Backup and goal-line back Gerard Wicks (RSFr., 5-11, 211) has 57 carries for 212 yards (3.72) and 4 TDs.
Obviously the idea is for the HB to catch a ton of passes running routes out of the backfield to make up for the lack of rushing production. Morrow has certainly received a ton of targets. He has caught 61 passes, but for only 460 yards and no scores. He is most often targeted as a simple check down, or to attempt to move the chains on 3rd and short.
Leach runs only to keep offenses honest, and at a certain point he tends to give up on that too. The bulk of attempts will come on 1st down (117 out of 225 total attempts). 69 attempts have occurred on 2nd down, and then a hilarious 32 attempts for -3 yards on 3rd down. Every single rushing TD has come in the red zone.
Now THIS is why you come play football in Pullman. A total of 8 receivers have totaled 300+ receiving yards this season. Madness.
The number-one receiver, if you want to pick out just one, is starting X-WR Vince Mayle (Sr., 6-3, 219), who has caught 101 passes for 1404 yards and 9 TDs. Right behind him is Z-WR Isiah Myers (Sr., 6-0, 189) with 75 catches, 906 yards, and a team-high 12 TDs. Rivers Cracraft (So., 6-0, 199) has 63 catches, 731 yards, and 7 scores.
Dom Williams (Jr., 6-2, 190) has to be the best WR in the conference that is not listed as a starter. His 40 catches for 607 yards and 8 TDs would be good for 2nd, 1st, and 1st among Washington receivers. Rickey Galvin, Robert Lewis, and Tyler Baker have all totaled at least 300 passing yards and 2 scores.
Pretty much all of these guys will likely get snaps, targets, and catches. There's just no avoiding it. Washington's secondary is going to be stretched out across the field. Not only will a third corner (nickelback) be necessary on almost every play, but safeties Budda Baker and Kevin King will also find themselves matched up, sometimes in man coverage, against quality wide receivers.
Although the secondary has generally played as well as could be expected in the wake of the dismissal of Marcus Peters, allowing receivers to get behind the safeties on the deep ball has resurfaced as a major issue. Corners (it may have been Sidney Jones both times) were burned at least twice for huge gains against Oregon State, and the good fortune of a Travis Feeney pick in the red zone may have stopped the Beavers from keeping the game extremely close as a result of one such explosive play.
Considering how often the Cougars will spread out five receivers, it will be key for individual DBs to take away the deep ball, even at the cost of some easy gains in the intermediate range. Quick, demoralizing downfield scores on the road are a recipe for Apple Cup disaster.
Washington's recipe for success will be to harass the living hell out of Falk, take away easy deep balls, and for the love of god not to waste any opportunities for an interception or a fumble recovery.
It is absolutely possible to defeat the Air Raid, but it's not plausible to shut it down completely. A defense must make the quarterback sustain long drives by forcing check downs and intermediate completions instead of long gains, and by disrupting that progress via negative plays.
That means Sidney Jones, John Ross, and Naijel Hale stepping up at corner. Washington has called for a lot more press man these days, and whiffing on an attempt to jam the receiver can easily turn into a wide open target down field.
Better zone coverage will also be paramount, as I doubt the defensive staff will feel comfortable leaving corners and safeties out on islands too often when WSU goes five wide. Throughout this season, safeties have hunkered down in the middle of their deep zones, failing to move within the zone to help corners pass of receivers. Receivers have found great success settling in to the soft spots in UW's zone coverage as DBs on either side lock in on the QB.
Finally, even if this seems pretty obvious: tackle! The worst possible thing that Washington can do defensively aside from surrendering deep touchdown passes is to whiff on tackle attempts on intermediate routes and check downs. Falk will get his yards one way or another. He really doesn't need Washington to do him a favor and allow his receivers to turn routine 3-5 yard gains into first downs.
How do you all feel about Washington's defense against the WSU Air Raid?