I’ve been staring at a blank screen for the past ten minutes trying to figure out how to adequately express my thoughts about this game. My brain has been so conditioned to assume that a Chris Petersen Husky team will bludgeon a Mike Leach Cougar team in the Apple Cup that I’m having trouble viewing this game properly.
Nothing the Huskies (or Cougars, for that matter) have done this season gives you tremendous confidence that they can display the same dominance they have the past few seasons. The offense has had trouble putting two halves together and tends to spend at least one quarter per game doing absolutely nothing. Meanwhile, the Cougars lead the conference in percentage of drives scoring points. If that struggling quarter happens to be the first one for Washington then it wouldn’t shock me to see them down 10-0 or 14-3 early in the game.
The advanced stats generally still say that Washington is the better team despite the difference in win-loss record but I just don’t feel that the areas where UW typically has a huge advantage are quite as applicable anymore. Given Minshew’s quick decisionmaking and the lack of a Husky pass rush I can’t expect UW to get more than one sack in this game. While the Washington secondary is very good, I don’t feel like they’re quite the same at tackling or forcing fumbles as past editions. Which means the defense will have to rely on Minshew or the receivers making mistakes to get stops and I don’t think it’s as likely to happen this year.
The Husky offense is finally healthy and in as good a position as possible to put up points against the Cougars. But UW has only scored more than 27 points against a Pac-12 opponent twice and they were against the two worst defenses in the conference. I don’t have a lot of confidence that Washington can get much above 21 points. I’m hoping it’s merely a case of my brain trying to protect me by lowering expectations but I just don’t have a good feeling about this.
Washington 20, Washington State 31
I feel more optimistic going into this game than I expected I would over the last few weeks. Clearly, there are plenty of red flags for the Huskies. UW has struggled to get pressure on the QB and WSU is outstanding at getting the ball out quickly. The Cougars have been more prolific after the catch all year due to better production from their running backs out of the backfield. The Husky offense has not demonstrated an ability to win a shootout, and the defense didn’t exactly look its best against Oregon State.
Still, I keep going back to Chris Petersen’s continued dominance of Mike Leach. Petersen hangs his hat on a defensive scheme that forces opponents to play mistake-free. Every year, the Cougars have made enough mistakes that the games haven’t been close. I don’t think we’re in for another 41-13 type of game, but I don’t think the talent has changed enough to drastically alter the application of the gameplan.
Washington 34, Washington State 31
I don’t remember the last time I was so indecisive about predicting the outcome of a Washington football game. But that’s the nature of the Apple Cup, isn’t it? They always seem to play out in bonkers fashion that drives both fanbases absolutely mad.
On the one hand, Washington State has unquestionably one of the nation’s hottest offenses right now, thanks to quarterback Gardner Minshew and his sniper rifle of a right arm. His mastery of the Air Raid offense is the primary reason for Wazzu’s #8 ranking and the fact that the Cougars are listed as three-point favorites over the Huskies—who, for the record, have utterly shut down Mike Leach’s offense in recent meetings, holding Washington State 16, 21, and 22 points below their season averages in each of the last three years. Minshew leads the nation in pass attempts with 578 (the #2 most prolific passer, Dwayne Haskins of Ohio State, trails Minshew by 154 throws), which he’s converted into 4,325 yards and 36 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. He is likely to be the best quarterback Washington faces in 2018, and it probably won’t be much of a contest between him and his closest competitor.
And yet, the Washington defense is all but tailor-made to shut down Mike Leach’s offense, which they’ve done to great effect in each of the four Apple Cups that Chris Petersen has coached. Yes, the Cougs have averaged more than 320 yards per game during that stretch, but those totals are eclipsed by the ten interceptions the Huskies have corralled compared to the five touchdowns they’ve allowed.
And while the Washington secondary is arguably just as talented in 2018 as it has been at any other point since 2014, it ought to concern Washington fans immensely that this year’s defense has been mostly unable to create havoc and turnovers. This year’s defense ranks 79th in havoc rate per S&P+, compared to ranks 30th, 32nd, and 35th in 2017, 2016, and 2015, respectively.
In the end, I think that inability to adequately upset Minshew’s rhythm is what will doom the Huskies to a fourth loss on the season. No streak lasts forever, and for the first time in recent memory, Wazzu has the offensive firepower to beat the Huskies straight up. As much as it pains me to say it, I think that’s what happens tomorrow in an Apple Cup that Huskies fans will be all too eager to forget in the years to come.
Washington 28, Washington State 30
After a season of Washington being unable to stomp on the throat of teams when they get ahead and losing three games by an average of 3 1/3 points, it’s a weird combination of most of the wins being precarious, and most of the losses being so close to wins. On one hand it sucks because it feels like you can never be 100% stress-free with this team, and on the other hand it sucks because this could realistically be a matchup of two teams with one loss—or, frankly, two undefeated teams with how close Wazzu’s loss to USC was. Regardless of what side the Dawgs were on those three, however, and with how their victories have typically played out, it really just means that this is a team who can beat almost anyone, but can’t be completely counted on to beat top teams either. Whatever. It is what it is. They’re still a really good football team, just not the most reliable one, offensively at least.
Realistically, I can’t see either of these teams scoring more than 25-30ish points; both of the defenses are better than the offenses they’re facing, I would argue. What worries me the most for Washington’s defense is the duo of Borghi and Williams, especially as escape valves or by design in the short passing game and the flats. They’re both electric in space, no matter how good UW’s defense is at minimizing yards after catch. Similarly, Minshew’s quick release and greater mobility than Falk’s in years past combines with a weaker Washington pass rush to give the Cougs some room to breathe, offensively.
On the other hand.
Even with this slight regression by Washington’s defense and WSU’s new offensive toys, the Cougars’ whole system is still predicated on factors that completely play to the Dawgs’ advantage. Of Minshew’s passes, only 15.4% have gone more than 15 yards downfield and, even with a better-incorporated running game, they’re still based on quick passing. In other words, the two players who should be most impactful as ball carriers are inherently limited and supplementary as rushers. Except with those freaking shovel passes; those things are the devil. With so much being kept in front of them—just like the Dawgs want it—I find it hard to imagine even as potent an offense as WSU being overwhelming. (Furthermore, the two Pac-12 defenses most like UW’s, Cal and Utah, held the Cougars to 19 and 28 points, respectively. Also known as: they’re not unstoppable, if you know how to play it right.)
Which really brings it down to Washington’s offense. And by “it’s down to Washington’s offense,” I mean it’s down to Browning’s guts, the offensive line’s run blocking, and the receivers’ ability to stop being underwhelming. If the Huskies’ passing game can put some pressure on WSU, I’d be surprised if it didn’t involve Ty Jones as a mismatch in some way, plus Cade Otton or Drew Sample on a late-developing route or two, which the Cougs have shown trouble with in the red zone and other situations where they like to sell out to protect against runs between the tackles. Oh, while we’re on that topic, establishing Ahmed or others on sweeps would do the Dawgs good to free up the middle, but what do I know?
Pretty much, while anyone with eyes can see this year’s gonna be a way better fight than the last three, so much of WSU’s philosophy on both sides of the ball plays into Washington’s strengths on either. Regardless, it’s gonna be super fun and stressful, and my Coug aunt and I will probably end up hitting each other in the face with Thanksgiving leftovers at one point.
Washington 28, Washington State 24
Where to go with this prediction? It only happens to be the most consequential Apple Cup in recent memory. On one hand, you have the Mustached Magician and his darkhorse Heisman campaign leading young Cougar Nation on the unlikeliest of playoff pushes. On the other, you have a damaged goods senior class clad in purple who are coping with the disappointment of expectations not met but who still have a new and unique prize left to play for.
This is a game that defies normal analysis.
So, let’s take a look at what the gamblers are saying. As Jeff Nusser at CougCenter points out, WSU has only been favored in seven previous Apple Cups since 1991. In those, they’ve only managed to win three of the seven tries. That’s not great.
On the flip side of that, UW hasn’t exactly shined for bettors recently. They are 1-7 against the spread this year and 2-6 straight up in their last eight road games. I suppose if UW has a negative record against the spread and the spread is a negative number in their favor, then basic math (negative x negative = positive) tells you that UW should win. Right?
If that isn’t enough, we can take a look at recent history. UW has beaten WSU five straight games. Despite the fact that WSU played those games with different players in different situations in different times, five straight resembles an absolute and undeniable trend. Kind of like wind. Once it starts blowing in one direction it never changes direction again. Right?
Speaking of trends, history does tell us that Washington has won as many as six straight Apple Cups (WSU has never won more than two in a row) in past years. Thus, winning a sixth one this year wouldn’t be abnormal. But in a strange but relevant twist, UW has never won its sixth straight Apple Cup in Pullman. That’s absolutely true. Look it up.
So there you go. Undeniably conclusively inconclusive analysis.
Of course, WSU hasn’t won an Apple Cup as a ranked team since 1997. And it is now 2018. Which means that for most Cougs players, the idea of a ranked Cougs team winning an Apple Cup has never happened. Especially since they never saw it on Snapchat.
That doesn’t really bode well for WSU. But it also doesn’t really help my prediction.
Okay. Last attempt. Let’s try the Magic 8-Ball. I happen to have one right here on my desk. It helps me decide if I’m going to blog on any given day and if people will appreciate my work. I’m still waiting for my first affirmative answer on that one.
Anyhoo...here we go.
Shaking the 8-ball.
Asking the question “Will UW defeat WSU in the 2018 Apple Cup”?
That is not helpful. But wait! Something has just come to me. UW thrives in hazy conditions. Particularly when the haze is purple. Maybe the 8-Ball is telling me that its reply is to go with the Purple Haze. Sold.
Washington 30, Washington State 27
Win or lose, this feels like it should be the closest Apple Cup in recent memory. Washington’s offense has been up and down at best, and the defense, while generally keeping opponents out the end zone, doesn’t create much havoc. Washington State on the other hand has a very strong offense led by the best WSU QB in some time, Gardner Minshew. The defense is undersized, but usually gets it done by playing great team defense. Everyone contributes on that unit.
Okay, enough of that. If Washington is to win this game, it’s all about running the ball. Washington State is susceptible to yards on the ground even if they make a decent number of plays behind the line of scrimmage. Plus, I think the Huskies might struggle to pass without the threat of a run game. WSU gets decent pressure on the QB so if the Huskies have to keep both Drew Sample and Cade Otton in to block, I don’t know if just Ty Jones and Aaron Fuller will be able to get open. Washington State is 81st in S&P against the run, and Myles Gaskin has had great games against them in the past. I imagine Chris Petersen will want to limit opportunities that Minshew has with the ball, so playing keep away will be the game plan.
The Huskies have history on their side, too. Recent games against WSU haven’t even been close, no matter the circumstances or stakes—say, a Pac-12 North title being on the line. Husky special teams will keep this game closer than we want (in a bad way) but ultimately the Husky defense and run game do enough to secure the Pac-12 North title. Something tells me Hunter Bryant has a big game.
Washington 24, Washington State 21
Straight Up: Washington- 4, Washington State- 2
Against The Spread (UW +2.5): Washington- 3, Washington State- 2
Average Score: Washington- 28, Washington State- 29