The Washington State Cougars make their way into Husky Stadium this weekend to play the Washington Huskies in the highest-stakes Apple Cup in a generation. Both teams are ranked in the top-15 for the first time in the 110 games between the cross-state rivals, and Washington State is playing for a North division title and the chance to play for their first conference championship since 2002. The Huskies hold a commanding 71-32-6 lead in the series, and have won the last four Apple Cups. As of Thursday evening, Vegas Insider favors the Huskies to win by 10.5 points, and ESPN’s Power Football Index gives the Dawgs an 84.4 percent chance to win. What result do the Dawg Pound writers expect to read on the scoreboard at game’s end?
Both the betting public and the advanced stats folks at ESPN think that Washington wins this game comfortably. So how is it that I find myself feeling so uncomfortable when imagining the prospect of a Husky win in the 110th Apple Cup?
Certainly, history is on the side of the purple and gold. Washington currently rides a four-game winning streak, and the Huskies are 12-5 in such games throughout the history of the series. Moreover, Washington’s wins the last few years have been decisive: Since 2013, the Huskies have outscored the Cougars 148-57, and have won all but one game against the Mike Leach-coached teams.
And yet, it seems to me that the advantages that made those impressive Washington victories possible in years past have either evaporated or flipped entirely in 2017. Last year, for example, UW’s defensive secondary boasted three second-round NFL Draft picks in Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Kevin King; this year, they’re down a starting cornerback in Jordan Miller, and Byron Murphy looked tremendously rusty last week against Utah after missing most of the season due to a broken foot.
Another difficult challenge that the Huskies will need to overcome is Wazzu’s much-improved pass defense. Last year, the Huskies boasted the most dangerous speed threat in college football in the form of John Ross, and WSU’s defense allowed 7.9 yards per attempt. In 2017, the Huskies have searched high and low without finding a credible replacement for Ross, and Washington State now fields a much stingier pass defense that yields just 6.1 yards per attempt, good for second in the conference.
If Washington is to win its fifth-consecutive Apple Cup, then, it’s going to have to be done on the strength of their running backs. The Cougars have fielded a stout rushing defense this year under the direction of coordinator Alex Grinch, allowing just 3.79 yards per rush, but Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed both average a hair under six yards per carry, and Washington’s 29 rushing touchdowns ranks third in the conference.
Washington will field the more talented squad in this game thanks to its recruiting advantages over the Cougars, and only a fool underestimates the home field advantage that Husky Stadium affords the Dawgs in Apple Cup games. But streaks don’t last forever, and I’m not sure that Washington’s underwhelming offense can go toe-to-toe with a Wazzu passing game that matches up horribly against the triaged Husky secondary. If Murphy and Myles Bryant find themselves outplayed by Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack the way they were against Utah’s big-bodied receivers, I will be surprised if the Cougars don’t walk away with the win and a chance to play USC in the Pac-12 championship. Washington 23, Washington State 27.
If you had asked me three weeks ago, I'd have said WSU won't score more than max 17 points. At this point though? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Although, even with UW's defense tripping up a bit the last couple weeks, that doesn't mask the fact that A) it's still one of the best in the country and B) Wazzu's air raid plays right into the hands of UW's defense, just like it always has. If anything's gonna disproportionately trip up the Dawgs' defense, it'll be WSU's underappreciated running game and those pesky shovel passes, both of which can create some annoying wrinkles for opponents. When it comes down to it, though, I trust the Huskies' defensive line to beat out the Cougs' offensive line and, while they've been somewhat off compared to their normal standard, I still trust this secondary to limit big plays.
What will probably determine this game is the offensive line against Wazzu's front, especially Hercules "I Make Opposing O Lines Poop Their Pants" Mata'afa, as well as Jake's ability to make quick decisions under pressure.
It's weird thinking about this year's Apple Cup as more of a defensive battle but here we are. I think UW's offense will play better against WSU's defense than vice versa, but it probably won't be one of those stupidly comfortable victories like the last few years have been.
Final: UW 27 - WSU 21
The Huskies showed some mettle last week I didn't think they had. While some questions have started to pop up about the play of the defense (the secondary in particular), there is no doubt the offense's clutch performance at the end of regulation against Utah was a welcome sight. Jake Browning made nice throws and his receivers helped him out. Of course, Tristan Vizcaino hitting the game winning field goal after what's been an up and down season was awesome too.
Now, on to the Apple Cup. The typically strong WSU Air Raid has sputtered this year. Luke Falk has been pulled from games and the OL has had trouble protecting him, to the tune of 3.5 sacks per game, which ranks 80th in adjusted sack rate. The offense has also suffered from a lack of explosiveness, ranking near the bottom nationally in that category. Overall, WSU is 71st in passing S&P+. On the ground, WSU doesn't allow many negative plays with their running backs but do not sport a particularly dangerous run game. They do catch tons of passes out of the backfield, though.
Surprisingly, it's been defense this year that has been carrying the flag for the Cougs. Led by players like S Jalen Thompson and DL Hercules Mata'afa, the defense has been able to create substantial havoc behind the line of scrimmage. They live on creating negative plays - their LBs are 6th nationally in havoc rate. However, this aggression can leave them vulnerable and they are more than susceptible to giving up a big play, especially on the ground where they rank near the bottom of the country in that category. At home their pass defense has been excellent and one of the best in the conference but on the road they've regressed to middle of the PAC.
The key for the Huskies in this one is to stick to the run and avoid turnovers. They must ride out the inevitable negative plays that WSU will create, generate some explosive runs, and hit on play action. To abandon the run and let Hercules Mata'afa rush Jake Browning against our OL is a recipe for disaster. On defense, the Huskies will have to get back to what they've been doing so well up until the last two weeks: keep opponents behind the sticks and be ruthlessly efficient. However, the injuries in the secondary and lack of a top flight pass rusher has been taken advantage of in recent weeks, most especially not being able to get off the field on 3rd downs. The Cougars are coming off a bye week and will no doubt be prepared, not to mention a win in the Apple Cup sends them to face USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Husky defense should be able to hold down a weaker than usual Air Raid, but the offense will struggle unless the defense gives them short fields via turnovers.
I think this is a pretty close game throughout, with Myles Gaskin leading the way for the offense. WSU is pretty awful in punt coverage so Dante Pettis should at least help give UW win the field position battle. WSU's defense gives the Husky offense problems most of the day but gives up too many big plays and the offense can't keep up. Luke Falk gets sacked 5 times, by 5 different players. Huskies win 28-17.
The great thing about editing privileges is that I can insert my two-cents into an article at any time. Better late than never.
This is the Apple Cup. Crazy things happen in Apple Cups. Things like Snow Bowls. Things like Brock Huard getting picked five times. Things like Matt Kegel fumbling in triple OT. Things like Keith Price throwing an INT in OT to allow WSU to claim the largest comeback in Apple Cup history. Things like Chuck Nelson missing his only field goal of the whole year to lose a game.
It’s never easy to predict an Apple Cup.
All we can do is look at what we know about the two teams taking the field and project from there. From an “on paper” perspective, UW seems to match up pretty well in this one. I especially like UW’s dime package - featuring Byron Murphy and Austin Joyner on the outside, Taylor Rapp and Miles Bryant on the inside and JoJo McIntosh and Zeke Turner at safety - as foil for the air raid. The UW defensive line has actually been getting better all season as guys like Jaylen Johnson, Ryan Bowman and Levi Onwuzurike get more ingrained in their roles. They ought to be able to mount pressure out of their base and force WSU into dink-and-dunk mode.
I do think that the WSU defense will be able to do some damage to the UW offense. However, the so-called “speed-D” has had its struggles against multiple-style offenses like UW’s. Alex Grinch’s D is at its best when it can overplay one aspect of the opposition’s offense, take it away and then allow that team to beat itself with its own weakness. There have only been three games this season where WSU has given up both >200 yards passing and >100 yards rushing. Their two losses (Arizona, Cal) and their OT win (Boise State). This aggressive Coug D is susceptible to mix-and-match offenses.
Finally, you can’t ignore the home field advantage here. The Huskies haven’t lost a game on their home turf all season while WSU has only two wins away from home: a close one to Utah before their BYE and a road win over a Herbert-less Oregon team. It’s not a crippling weakness, but the Cougs simply aren’t as sharp away from home.
Of course I’m taking UW here. The Dawgs are in a great position to win their fifth in a row and will be motivated to play the part of spoiler against Mike Leach and his Cougs. WSU 13, UW 45