On paper, the Huskies and the Cowboys present a compelling matchup in the upcoming Cactus Bowl. For one, they both present young-ish teams who are enduring a transition year. Second, they both boast high levels of talent that for one reason or another have underperformed to that talent level across the entirety of the season. Thirdly, they are both breaking in new QBs in new offensive systems (the Cowboys being in Year 2 of that transition, but having implemented many new elements throughout this season). Finally, they both bring to the table stout defensive front sevens that must compensate for young, inexperienced secondaries.
2015 TicketCity Cactus Bowl
Where: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ
When: Friday, Jan 2nd, 2015 @ 7:15pm CT
TV: ESPN (Dave Flemming, Danny Kannell); DIRECTV channel 206
Satellite Audio: SiriusXM channel 83
Streaming Audio: TuneIn Radio
Latest Odds: Washington -5
Given all of their similarities - and there are more if you care to check them out - you would figure that both teams would want to implement similar game plans in order to try to secure victory.
Not so fast my friend.
While their similarities are numerous, it is also the case that the paths to victory for each head coach are going to be very different. Both will want to emphasize different strengths in their game plans while seeking out different exposures that may exist on the opponent's side of the line of scrimmage.
I've done my own assessment of this game with an eye towards developing a three-point game plan for each team that maximizes their opportunity to achieve victory. Here are my "Three Keys" for each team.
How to Win: Oklahoma State
1. Keep QB Mason Rudolph Upright
It seems like such a simple notion: keep the pass rush off of the passer. However, for Oklahoma State, this is more vital than what would be expected in a normal game because the degree of difficulty will be so much higher. The Cowboys will go into the game featuring a patchwork O-Line that includes two sophomores in key roles. While the return of RT Daniel Koenig will be big, this is still a unit that averages three sacks surrendered per game and who will be going against one of the top 5 pass rushes in the nation.
The Huskies will undoubtedly limit their blitzing, so the key for the pass-first OSU team will be whether or not they can keep Hau'oli Kikaha, Danny Shelton, Evan Hudson and Andrew Hudson from breaking down the pocket. In order to give their frosh QB some time and to develop some confidence, I expect that the Cowboys will run a number of plays where they move the pocket or get the ball out in less than three seconds. I also expect them to keep a TE on the field more than they normally would and use him as a blocker to assist with this goal.
2. Strip, Chop, Hack and Force At Least Three Fumbles
The Cowboys can expect the Huskies to run a conservative offensive game plan against them. RB Dwayne Washington has been on fire the past month, they will undoubtedly run some packages for Shaq Thompson and Cyler Miles is a weapon when using his legs. Everybody knows that Petersen wants to limit mistakes and wear out his younger, smaller opponent as a central theme in his gameplan. The question is what OSU coach Mike Gundy will do to compensate.
If I'm Gundy, I have to bet on the fact that my young QB is going to turn the ball over a few times against this physical and fast Husky defense. To create extra possessions for his own team, he's going to have to force the Huskies to fumble the ball a few times. That's a tall order, but the Huskies have shown a knack for - quite literally - losing their grip. The Dawgs have had a challenge snapping the ball, their QB has coughed it up several times and their top RB has struggled with fumbling issues the last two seasons.
The Cowboys are going to need extra possessions to win this one. Coaching up their players to stand up the ball carriers and to go after strips and chops to generate those possessions is a critical element to their preparation.
3. Sniff Out the Gadget Plays
As this will be our first experience as a Husky fan base in watching what Chris Petersen does to prepare for a bowl game, we don't really know how much of the gameplan will focus on gadgets. However, if history is to be a guide, we can expect to seem some additions to the playbook that would otherwise be found in the Acme Guide to Crazy Football Plays. It is no secret that Chris Petersen likes to surprise his opponents and that his players love to run those plays.
In truth, the Huskies have been setting themselves up for trick play options all season. By playing guys like Shaq and John Ross on both sides of the ball, by implementing pass/run packages for Jeff Lindquist, and by deploying guys like Kendyl Taylor and Marvin Hall in run, catch or pass roles throughout the season, Petersen and OC Jonathan Smith have given opponents a lot to prepare for on defense and in special teams.
It would amaze everybody if Petersen doesn't deploy a few secret weapons in order to create big chunk plays and to change field position. OSU simply cannot afford to let those kinds of plays get converted if they have designs on winning the game. Their keys will be in maintaining their eye discipline, holding their coverages on any reverses and looking for the inevitable cues that may tip a trick play such as the presence of a two-way player on the field.
How to Win: Washington
1. Play Ahead of the Chains on 65% of Their Offensive Downs
I fully expect the Huskies to deploy a conservative game plan that features a strong rushing attack and intermediate passing. The Huskies are at their best when they are controlling the clock and playing within striking distance of the lead. And, unlike last year, they simply don't have the ability to generate explosive plays on a consistent basis, particularly if they fall behind by a couple of scores. In fact, they were 10th in the P12 in plays over 20 yards with just 50 for the season (OSU had 55), just ahead of Utah and Colorado.
You will know that the Huskies are having their way if they keep themselves in favorable down and distance for two-thirds of their snaps. I don't know if there is universal agreement on this , but I define "favorable" for the college game as the Yards-to-Go divided by the Downs-to-Go equaling 2.5 yards or less (or a first down conversion).
In order for the Huskies to achieve that number, they are going to have to avoid penalties, avoid sacks and focus on high percentage plays in their passing game. In addition, establishing a consistent rushing attack is a given. If they can do those things, they might well set themselves up for a couple of big "gash" plays and, importantly, suck the wind out of that strong first-line front seven on the Cowboys D.
2. Win the D-Line vs O-Line Matchup
This is observation is almost too obvious, but it's importance is paramount. On paper, the Huskies D-Line has a huge advantage over a Cowboys offensive line that surrenders three sacks per game and who is now protecting a pocket-oriented true freshman QB with all but two starts to his name.
The Huskies MUST win this element of the game in order to maximize their opportunity for a win in the Cactus Bowl.
Cactus Bowl Must Reads
Cactus Bowl Must Reads
This isn't to say that the Huskies have to sack Mason Rudolph 10 times in order to win. However, it is important that the Huskies make the pocket an uncomfortable situation for the Cowboys young QB. If the interior of Evan Hudson and Danny Shelton can knock that porous Cowboy interior line backwards by three or four steps on most snaps, not only will they take away Rudolph's ability to step into throws, but they'll force him out of the pocket and either into sacks by waiting defensive ends or passes on the run that are less likely to be on target. When that happens, turnovers and possession changes happen.
If the Huskies allow this major advantage to be neutralized by Oklahoma State, then all bets are off.
3. Win the Kicking Game
I'm going to channel my inner Dick Baird here, not because I think it is cute, but because I really believe that this will be a challenge.
One thing that really popped for me as I was preparing my analysis was the 92% conversion rate that OSU has once they reach the Red Zone. That was tops in the Big 12. If you measure only the TD conversion rate, that percentage falls all the way to 52% - second worst in the B12. The difference? An excellent placekicking game.
Another stat that really pops out is the number 6. That is the total number of kicks blocked by Oklahoma State on the season. That easily led the B12 and tied with five other teams as the best number in the entire nation.
In addition to being efficient in the Red Zone and generating blocks, the Cowboys have been pretty reliable in creating big plays in their own returns, kicking touchbacks and covering both punt and kickoff return plays. There is nothing easy given to you in their special teams.
But, there is hope. The absence of Tyreek Hill is a major storyline in this game and one that creates a crack in the door for the Huskies to bust through. In addition, the Cowboys, despite having an 80% kicker, have only attempted a single FG in the last four games. They may be rusty in that aspect of the game.
If the Dawgs can win the kicking game - that is to say that they change field position, convert scoring opportunities and avoid any major gaffes - they can neutralize an advantage for OSU and create some breathing room in what is otherwise likely to be a close game.
There are other keys that may be just as vital. I debated the merits or raising points such as the use of Cyler Miles in the rushing attack, the emergence of a "healthy" Kasen Williams in the short passing game, the execution of OSU's blitzing scheme and the matchup of OSU's taller receiving corps against UW's smaller secondary. There are lots of angles to this game that could result in one team getting a sustainable advantage over the other. Such is the nature of a close, competitive matchup.
I'm curious what both UW and OSU fans think the keys of the game are from their points of view. Leave your keys in the comments thread below.