It's the Apple Cup, which means I don't need to remind anyone of the stakes here - bragging rights always matter. And for the first time since 2003, the Cougars are ranked and the Huskies aren't. While WSU fans are reveling in their first season with at least 8 wins since that 2003 campaign and giddy at finding themselves above Washington the Pac-12 standings, history hasn't been particularly kind to the Cougars when they've been ranked and the Huskies haven't - in the three other times that's happened, they lost two (in 2002 & 2003) and tied once (in 1942). Will history repeat itself on Friday?
WSU has had a terrific season - there's no way to deny that. And who would have predicted that after the huge faceplant they had in week one when they lost to FCS Portland State? They scraped into the win column - barely - in week two at Rutgers, and since then they've been getting better and better. Luke Falk has settled into the starting role with aplomb and is running the Air Raid better than Connor Halliday, and new DC Alex Grinch has improved the Cougar defense from "bad" to "decent".
Still, there's no doubt WSU has benefited from a favorable schedule (no USC or Utah, easy OOC slate) and playing Oregon without Vernon Adams at QB. And while we can argue whether advanced metrics like S&P or FEI accurately capture the effectiveness of the Air Raid offense, there's little doubt that they have not played a defense nearly as good as Washington's so far this year. We only have to look back as far as last year to see how a Pete Kwiatkowski defense fared against a Mike Leach offense, and it wasn't pretty for the Cougars.
On the other hand, that success was largely built on the ability of the Huskies to get pressure on Falk with just four rushing while dropping seven into coverage. This year's defense has been better overall than last year's, but they have not been nearly as good at rushing the passer (3.7 sacks/game vs. 2.4), so the status of NT Elijah Qualls and BUCK Travis Feeney are of particular importance. For WSU, the big question is whether Falk can play after the nasty hit he took last week that resulted in him being carted off the field on a stretcher.
What might fly under the radar is the improvement in the Husky offense as the season has progressed. Though they struggled to convert yards to points at Arizona State due to untimely drops and sub-par play by the receivers, they fired on all cylinders at Oregon State and have been on an upward trajectory. The OL will have to do a good job adjusting to the stunts and twists that the Cougar DL loves to run and Browning will need another good game from his receivers, but I think Myles Gaskin will be able to exploit this defense and give the passing game a play-action threat.
Washington has the defense, an improving offense, homefield advantage and more compelling motivation - I don't think it will be easy, but the Huskies take their 3rd straight Apple Cup and sixth in seven years: Washington 27, WSU 21
The biggest question for the game will be whether Luke Falk will play. The prediction for this game could change based on Mike Leach's decision...I mean the medical staff independent of Coach Leach. But, Peyton Bender is no Ronnie Fouch. The Cougar receiving corps will battle with the Husky secondary all day regardless of the QB.. Look for Myles Gaskin to hit 1,000 yards for the season and the run game to control the ball to keep the Coug offense off the field. The Huskies defense makes the stops it needs to in the fourth quarter and a season is saved. Washington 28, WSU 24
This will the Huskies' first true back-and-forth game of the year in a game that I imagine being really tight in every sense of the word. Luke Falk or no Luke Falk, the Cougars will be able to methodically move the ball through the air with Gabe Marks and Dom Williams, but they haven't faced a defense like the Huskies' yet and it will give them problems in the red zone, forcing them to settle for more field goals than touchdowns.The Huskies will be able to run the ball on offense and will avoid the turnovers that doomed them in other winnable games. They get some help from a McClatcher or Pettis return for a TD or their first defensive score in a long, long time to give them the slightest of advantages in a game that goes down to the final play. Washington 24 Washington State 23
The Cougars come into Seattle as a team on a roll. Their offense has set the pace as they've piled up gaudy stats and accolades across the board. As a unit, the Air Raid has produced nearly 4500 yards and 38 TDs, both good for tops in the conference. In addition, they've been exceptional in the Red Zone converting 94% of trips into scores (1st) and 67% for TDs (2nd to USC). As individuals, QB Luke Falk has been voted Pac 12 POTW three different times while three different WSU receivers - Dom Williams, River Cracraft and Gabe Marks - have appeared on the Belitnikoff Award watch list.
Accolades don't always equal results. The Cougs have not been a balanced or particularly efficient offense. Despite all of their passing yards, WSU is still just 4th in the conference in total offense, 6th in scoring offense and 7th in yards per play (just barely ahead of UW).
With Peyton Bender likely to get the start for WSU, the Cougs are going to have their hands full with the Huskies Pass Defense. Statistically, the Huskies have the #2 Pass D in the conference both in terms of yardage and completion % against. In addition, FEI ranks UW #15 in the nation in explosive play prevention. UW has a depth of versatile, long, and rangy athletes at both the linebacking and secondary levels that create tight passing lanes and difficult reads for the QB to process. I expect that the combination of UW's disguises and Bender's inexperience will lead to sub 60% completion % and less than 7 yards per pass for the Cougs.
That might yet still be enough. The big question is whether or not the Husky offense can do enough to compensate for the big plays that WSU will connect on. The Cougars are not a push-over defense. They have an active D-Line that can make plays behind the line of scrimmage. In fact, the Cougs are 2nd in the conference in TFLs. That said, the Cougs are not an efficient defense. Their sack rate is middle of the conference and they are worst in the conference in giving up third downs.
Putting aside the rivalry for a second, this is not a good match up for the Cougs. Their defining strengths - red zone conversions and passing offense - play right into extreme strengths for the Huskies. In addition, UW's most defining weaknesses - passing efficiency and rushing offense - match a couple of WSU's most glaring deficiencies. I think that the Huskies will be able to use WSU's aggressiveness against them with Myles Gaskin utilizing the counter in much the same way he did last week against Oregon State and with Jake Browning working play action.
WSU has momentum coming into Seattle. Beyond that, I see very few defining advantages that they can boast. They'll be on the road against a team that has had success against spread passing teams most likely without their starting QB. In addition, they'll be putting their inefficient defense against a UW offense that struggles with consistency but is more apt that they are to hit explosive plays.
The winds are definitely blowing in UW's direction for this one. UW 37, WSU 24