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First Take: Washington, Oklahoma State and the 2015 Cactus Bowl

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The Huskies will meet the Oklahoma State Cowboys in Tempe in a little over a week. What the heck is a Cactus Bowl and who, exactly, are these Cowboys?

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

We are just a little over a week away from UW's final game in Chris Petersen's initial season.  His opponent will be a Big 12 team whose season, in some ways, mirrored the maiden voyage of the Petersen football ship that makes anchor on Montlake.

The Oklahoma State Cowboys entered this season with a lot of questions.  They had just completed their first season under their controversial new Offensive Coordinator, Mike Yurcich.  Yurcich, who was hired from little-known Shippensburg after Head Coach Mike Gundy had searched stats on the Internet (kind of sounds like how Oregon found Chip Kelly), replaced Todd Monken, the original architect of the explosive OKST system.  They were coming off of a QB controversy in 2013, one that led to this  year's incumbent, J.W. Walsh getting promoted.  And they were going to have to replace four key playmakers with RB Jeremy Smith and WRs Charlie Moore, Tracy Moore and Josh Stewart all having moved on.

Despite all of the transitional issues, there were many reasons for optimism.  The offensive line entered the season with decent game experience, the defensive line was considered a strength of the team (while the young secondary was considered an exposure), and the young talent waiting in the wings - in particular the explosive Tyreek Hill - was considered more than enough to compensate for the loss talent from the season before.

Kind of sounds like Washington, eh?

While many pundits were projecting 8 to 9 wins for the Cowboys, the season didn't go exactly as planned.  Injuries played a key part in the story - particularly along the offensive line and at QB after Walsh went down early.  The in and out nature of all of those players led to a sluggishness on offense which, in turn, contributed to a five game losing streak at the end of the season which included an embarrassing 7-point output in a humbling loss to a struggling Texas team.  It was ineffectiveness and, ultimately, a concussion suffered in that Texas game by backup JR QB Daxx Garman that led to the burning of the red shirt for FR QB Mason Rudolph, the presumed starter for the Cactus Bowl.

Rudolph, of course, led the team to the big rivalry game win in OT against Oklahoma that both ended the five game losing streak and earned the Cowboys bowl eligibility.  Despite the availability of Garman and, possibly, Walsh, Rudolph is the "future" of the program and will go into the New Year as the presumptive starter for Mike Gundy.  A bowl win would cap off a wildly inconsistent season and, when coupled with the Oklahoma upset, would lend credence to the direction that Gundy is taking his program with both his young talent and his second year OC.

On the flip side, Chris Petersen is very much following a similar trajectory.  Despite delivering three All-Americans on a single side of the ball, the Huskies have only managed to "hold serve" over the team that Steve Sarkisian fielded a year ago.  Should Petersen lose the Cactus Bowl, he will have lost half as many games in one season at UW as he did for his entire career at Boise State.  On the flip side, a win over a talented OKST game that simply fell on hard times during the season would qualify as his best win of the year and one that would set the tone for the offseason.

Gekko's Five Observations

1. The Cowboys will miss Tyreek Hill

Most of you know that RB/WR Tyreek Hill channeled is inner LaMichael James and allegedly committed a horrifying act of domestic violence by choking his pregnant girlfriend.  Hill had just completed a fantastic first year with the Cowboys as he had compiled 534 yards rushing (5.2 ypc) and 281 yards receiving.  His versatility extended to special teams as he was the leading returner on both punts and kickoffs and had scored three special teams TDs on the season.

It would be dangerous to overstate Hill's importance given that he was still only the Cowboys second leading rusher and fourth leading receiver.  However, he filled the same role on this offense that DeAnthony Thomas did for the Oregon Ducks a year ago.  Some people have called him the fastest player in all of college football this year.  He's a threat to score from anywhere on the field, as the Oklahoma Sooners learned on this game-tying fourth quarter return for a TD.  Look at that speed - that's Oklahoma he's running against.  Amazing.

With Hill now dismissed from the team, the Cowboys will have one less homerun threat to pressure the Huskies with.  Against a defense as salty as UW's, that could be a major factor.

2.  Mason Rudolph and James Washington are two impact freshman

Rudolph, who had to have his red shirt burned due to QB injuries, has all of two starts to his name, so it is hard to make any grand conclusions about what he brings to the table.  His stats don't exactly pop - he's completed just 53% of his passes and has a 4:3 TD/INT ratio.  On top of that he's not really had an impact with his legs.  However, his YPA across those two games is 9.2 and his starts came against legit power teams in both Baylor and Oklahoma.  The 6'4" 217 lb frosh has both the frame and composure that indicate he could be legit.  However, he'll be working behind an underwhelming offensive line that will be facing one of the best d-lines in the nation.

The other freshman to watch is WR James Washington.  The 6'0" 193 lb wideout leads the Cowboys pass-first offense in TD receptions for the season with five and is one of those guys who just has a knack for making big catches.  He only gets the ball on average twice a game, but his productivity definitely ramped up as the season went on.

Check out this nice TD grab over two Texas Tech defenders:

3.  The Cowboys Defense is not all bad

The similarities between the Cowboys and Huskies across certain dimensions is somewhat eerie - particularly on defense.  The Cowboys strength, like UW's, is their defensive line where they feature both a game breaking DE and a grinder of a DT.  6'4" 270 lb SOPH Emmanuel Ogbah was the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year as he led the team with 11 sacks and 17 TFLs.  He also racked up 5 pass break ups, which demonstrates his athleticism.  You can see that athleticism in full effect in the GIF below.  In this clip, he comes around on the stunt not so much with great technique, but with great speed and motor for a 270 pounder.

His partner in crime is DT Ofa Hautau out of Salt Lake City.  The 6'2" 290 lb senior was voted the team MVP by his teammates this year.  Despite only recording 1.5 sacks and 28 total tackles for the year, the recognition that Hautau received from his teammates speak to what kind of impact he had on the team.

The secondary is the weak link for the Cowboys.  Opposing offenses - and, mind you, this is the Big 12 - completed over 60% of their passes for the year and racked up just about 8 yards per attempt.  Those are some big numbers that don't look good on paper.  In fact, the Cowboys ranked 112th in the nation in overall pass defense (keep the number 112 in mind).

When you consider that the Cowboys played the 28th most difficult schedule per F/+ and that they played a lot of teams who are far more advanced in their passing games than UW is, the defense begins to look a little better than their stats would imply.  The Huskies will, of course, emphasize the rush against the Cowboys and may have some success in doing so.  However, attacking that secondary is going to be a key part of the game plan.

4.  Oklahoma State is no stranger to post-season success.

No matter what your judgment is on this season, it cannot be argued that this is not a well-coached team.  Mike Gundy has put together quite the post-season resume, having a record of 6-3 and winning three of his last four.  The highlight has to be the 2012 Fiesta Bowl where Gundy took his team into a matchup against a heavily favored Stanford team.  If you recall, Stanford was in the discussion for a possible National Championship game appearance.  They had been riding that nasty defense and that Andrew Luck led offense to an 11-1 record.  But Gundy and his high-flying OKST offense, led by seniors Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon, turned the tables on the Cardinal and won a shootout in OT 41-38.

Don't sleep on the Cowboys.  This is a team with enough playmakers and enough depth to hang with just about any opponent.  Given time to get healthy and to game plan, there is more than enough evidence to suggest that Mike Gundy will be able to make some hay in this bowl game.

5.  The Huskies will have a significant advantage against the OKST offensive line.

112th.

That is a very important number if you are analyzing this football game.  The Cowboys are 112th in the nation in sacks allowed for this season.  They are, in short, one of the worst pass protecting units in all of college football.  Now, some of their issues are health related with injuries having struck down some of their O-Linemen over the course of the season.  Still 37 sacks allowed and an average of 3 per game does not bode well for the Cowboys, especially given the fact that the Huskies are third in the nation in sacks recorded per game with 3.8.

And, they can do this with their 340 lb defensive tackle:

There is some hope if you are a Cowboys fan.  The offensive line that started against OU consisted of a senior, two sophomores and two freshman.  The were missing three players - including two seniors - who were projected as starters at the beginning of the season.  At least one of those guys - starting T Daniel Koenig - should be back for the bowl game.  That said, this still figures to be a key positional matchup in this game.

Notables

  • The Cowboys and Huskies have played twice before.  The Huskies won the first matchup 24-18 in Stillwater.  OKST returned the favor in 1985 when they beat UW 31-17 in Husky Stadium.
  • OKST has good reason to be confident in this one.  They've beaten 36 of their last 41 unranked opponents and they have beaten five of the last six Pac 12 teams that they've faced dating back to 2009.
  • If you consider El Paso a "desert", then the Huskies have made four desert bowl game appearances and lost them all, most recently to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.  The Cowboys, on the other hand, have played three desert bowl games - all in Arizona - and won each of them.
  • Here is an interesting trivia note.  In 1985, the Cowboys opened their season with that win over UW and then closed it with a loss to Florida State in the Gator Bowl.  This year, the Cowboys opened their season against Florida State (a loss) and will close it with UW in the Cactus Bowl
  • Though the name sounds new, this will actually be the 26th playing of what is now called the Cactus Bowl.  This game, which was originally the Copper Bowl (played in Tucson) and was most recently the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, is unique in that it is run by the same organizing body that manages the Fiesta Bowl.
  • Neither Washington nor Oklahoma State have ever played in any incarnation of the Cactus Bowl