It's probably not a big shock for regular readers of this blog to learn that I rely pretty heavily on statistics - particularly advanced measures such as FEI and S&P - when predicting games. Metrics that adjust for quality of the opponent and focus on the components that most closely correlate with winning cut through bias that can develop in our irrational brains. But statistics only go so far, and if you apply them incorrectly then you aren't actually helping yourself.
By just about every metric out there, Washington rates higher than Oklahoma State. By FEI, the Huskies rank #40 compared to #80 for the Cowboys, while Sagarin has the UW at #39 compared to #56 for Oklahoma State. Only S&P sees these teams as close, with the Dawgs at #70 overall and OSU at #73. The only problem here is that these metrics all look at the season as a whole and don't really account for recent trends or changes in personnel.
It's a widely held belief that the single most important position on a football team is QB, and the Cowboys are starting a true frosh that has only played in the last two games of their season, so what the OSU offense did in their first 10 games only tells us part of the story in predicting how they'll do tomorrow. Mason Rudolph is a tremendously talented kid that has given the Cowboys a boost in terms of big-play potential. Their passing game on the season averaged 7.6 ypa, but in his two games Rudolph posted 11.2 ypa vs. Baylor and 7.8 ypa vs. Oklahoma. That boost to their big play potential has also had some downside as he's tossed 3 picks in his 60 attempts, but their offense has clearly improved with him at the controls.
He's not the only story though, as Tyreek Hill, the more explosive of the two Oklahoma State RBs (and a major threat as a returner) has been dismissed after a domestic violence incident. His loss may well negate much of the gains the Cowboys have made with Rudolph at QB.
Overall, this is a match-up that seems to favor the Huskies. Where Oklahoma State has been among the worst in the nation at avoiding sacks (3.1 per game, 117th), the Dawgs rank 2nd in accruing them (3.8 per game). While the Pokes have relied on explosive plays on offense (particularly with Rudolph), the Huskies have been among the best in the nation at preventing them (11th by FEI's Ex ranking). OSU doesn't appear to have the running game to exploit a Husky defense that has been vulnerable at times in this area.
On offense, the Huskies have also been trending upward as the season has progressed (helped in part by the schedule). With the run game finding traction behind explosive runs from Dwayne Washington and the passing game expanding as Cyler Miles has settled in and found a comfort level with TE Josh Perkins, Washington should continue that positive trajectory vs. an OSU defense that has been middling at best.
When you also factor in the success that HC Chris Petersen has had when he has extra time to prepare (bowls and season openers in particular), it's hard not to pick the Huskies. I have enough respect for the caliber of athletes on the Cowboy side to not expect a blowout, but I think Washington wins by a couple of scores and heads into the off-season with some nice momentum: Washington 34, Oklahoma State 24
Make no mistake here, Dawg fans. The Oklahoma State Cowboys are a formidable opponent for the Huskies at this stage of their transition into the Chris Petersen era. There is a very real chance that our Big 12 opponent will stand victorious up on the podium toting whatever trinket the bowl organizers picked up from Al's Trophy Shop off of Indian Wells on their way to the game. Indeed, the Huskies will have a real fight on their hands in Tempe. A Dawg fight.
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Cactus Bowl Must Reads
It is easy to look at the "per game" and national ranking stats for Oklahoma State over the course of the entire season and come to the conclusion that the Huskies have advantages just about everywhere. I mean, why not? A true freshman QB making just his third career start? A leading rusher who averages less than 4 YPC. A young and green defensive secondary that ranks 112th in the nation in pass D. An offensive line that is 112th in the nation in sacks surrendered. This looks pretty straight forward, right?
No matter how much your conscious mind wills you to do it, I'd caution against the urge to make such sweeping conclusions. And, put down that last Christmas cookie while you are at it.
On offense, the Cowboys will be pass-first under second-year OC Mike Yurcich. Mason Rudolph is very inexperienced and, compared to the Pac 12 QBs, a little less mobile than what the Huskies are used to. But, he has moxy and a knack for making plays. He'll be throwing to a WR corps that hasn't stepped up this year to replace the big playmakers from a year ago and is now missing one of the fastest men in college football with the dismissal of Tyreek Hill. Jr. Brandon Shepherd is the main guy, but the emerging star is the slippery Fr. James Washington. I'll also be keeping my eye on two sophomores: Jhajaun Seales and Marcell Ateman. Both are in the 6-3 range and both have seen a dip in their production over a year ago. This leads me to believe that QB issues have depressed their stats. If Rudolph can take advantage of their size advantages in that depleted receiving corps, then the run game will follow and will hurt the Dawgs - particularly on third downs. The Cowboys will try to evade that tough UW pass rush with Hau'oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton by frequently moving the pocket and trying to flood the UW zones on either side. LB discipline, particularly from Shaq Thompson, in supporting the pass will be a key if UW is going to generate some stops.
Defensively, the Cowboys matchup well against UW. They have a bigger defensive front and active linebackers. The Huskies weakness in the pass game will help out that struggling Cowboys secondary. If the Huskies are going to score points, they are going to have to be able to find a way to convert some big chunk plays down the field to guys like John Ross and Dante Pettis., The only way to do that will be to set them up with a consistent rushing attack from Dwayne Washington and in a perimeter attack through, yes I'm calling it, Kasen Williams. Look for to work the perimeter hard in both rushing and passing given the size advantages UW has on both the boundary and field sides of the LOS.
UW should have enough in the the tank to pull this one off. I think that the deciding differences here are two-fold. First, I think that the Huskies will be able to compromise that Cowboys O-Line with just a four man pass rush - if not three. The extra men in coverage will take away Rudolph's reads and force him to check downs which the swarming UW defenders - I'm looking at you Shaq, John Timu and Budda Baker - should be able to control. Second, while I don't see Cyler Miles throwing for a ton of yards in this one, I do expect him to perform better with ball security and good decisions than his counterpart. I can see that leading to an extra couple of possessions for UW - enough to make the difference in a close one. Washington 31, Oklahoma State 27
Has anyone seen Oklahoma State play this year? Me neither. It would have been nice for the Dawgs to get one more crack at a ranked team, but I suppose you've got to earn that right.
Based on what I read, the Cowboys' season sounds awfully familiar. They played Florida State tough (who doesn't?), beat a bunch of poor-to-average teams, then lost to every good team they played. Well, they they beat Oklahoma. The Sooners aren't exactly top-10 this year, but still: Oklahoma. On the other hand, this was a rivalry game, so there's that.
Oklahoma State played some very tough teams besides Florida State: K State, Baylor, TCU. Of course, they lost to all of them by at least 21, so it's not like they were challenging for the Big 12 title.
We've all seen that movie.
I have no idea whether this team is any good or not. The Huskies are favored by a touchdown last I checked, so that says they're not.
Here's what I predict:
This is the last time this defense will play together, and I'm expecting a motivated performance. The Cowboys may get some yards, but I seriously doubt that their offense will be able to win the game for them. Write that down. You can use pen if you want to.
The question is, what will the Dawgs' offense look like. If you squint your eyes just right you can convince yourself that there's been progress over the season. I think the receivers have progressed, and some new guys have made their mark. I think the running backs have basically performed well. And I also think the coordination between Miles and the offense has improved. Sporadically, perhaps, but the trend... the trend, people! The OL has not gotten worse.
What does that all mean? It's not unreasonable to expect the Huskies' best performance of the season. The defense will deliver exactly that. And the offense can. They really, really can. I promise. But will they? I believe so. In fact, delivering a season-best performance in the bowl would be a really smart thing for Coach Petersen to do. He should totally make this the best game of the season.