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Grading the Game: Apple Cup

Myles Gaskin capped off his fourth victory over the Cougars with a performance for the ages.

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

For the second consecutive year, the Washington State Cougars were favored to win this game, and earned my prediction that they would haul the Apple Cup trophy back to the Palouse. And for the sixth consecutive year, the Washington Huskies overwhelmed the Cougars to the tune of a double-digit victory, extending their lead in the series to 73-32-6.

You think I would have learned my lesson by now.

Because despite all the talk about Gardner Minshew’s budding Heisman campaign, despite Wazzu owning a top-10 ranking, and despite a very real feeling that Washington State’s 2018 season was a Cinderella story in the making, the result of Friday’s game was the same as it’s been since Chris Petersen arrived at Washington: The Huskies own this rivalry, and the UW defense under Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski is all but tailor-made to negate the strengths of the Air Raid, especially in late November blizzards. Until Wazzu actually manages to win a game against the Dawgs, it’s nothing less than a fool’s errand to think that Washington’s winning streak against the Cougs will do anything but continue its relentless march onward.

Rushing Offense: A

It’s utterly fitting that Myles Gaskin hit his season-high totals in rushing yards (170) and touchdowns (three) against the Cougars, as the Huskies’ career leader in a host of rushing categories has feasted in his four games against Wazzu. On Friday, he averaged 6.3 yards per attempt and took three carries for 10 yards or more, including his game-sealing 80-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter. In addition, six of his carries resulted in either a touchdown or a first-down conversion.

Salvon Ahmed was no slouch either, earning 87 yards on just nine carries. He was at his best during Washington’s demoralizing 14-play, 8:47 drive at the end of the game, when he picked up 71 yards on seven attempts and converted four first-downs that snuffed out any hope Gardner Minshew might have had of leading a game-winning drive that would have become an instant Apple Cup legend.

As for the offensive line, the Huskies owned the line of scrimmage against the undersized WSU defensive front, limiting the Cougars to two tackles for loss (netting four total yards for the Cougs) on designed run plays. That dominance was most visible in the red zone, where Washington averaged 4.2 yards per carry and picked up a combined four first-downs and touchdowns on six attempts.

Passing Offense: B

Outplaying the Washington State defense is nothing new for Jake Browning, and his program-record fourth Apple Cup victory as UW’s starting quarterback came much the same way as it did in 2015: by being incredibly efficient with his throws and taking advantage of a defense that, by necessity, prioritized stopping Myles Gaskin’s ground attack. It’s true that Browning didn’t complete a touchdown pass, and his turnover on the opening drive — marking his first career red zone interception (!) — could have spelled disaster, but those are about the only negatives you can point to, especially considering the blizzard conditions in which the game was played.

All told, Browning threw 207 yards on just 14 passes — an impressive 14.8 yards per attempt, and an even crazier 18.8 yards per completion. Those numbers are padded a bit by a handful of long completions to Andre Baccellia and Hunter Bryant, but overall the Huskies had little difficulty in producing explosion plays via the pass against Washington State. Among Browning’s highlights are completions of 32 and 48 yards to Baccellia, 27 and 59 yards to Bryant, and 24 yards to Salvon Ahmed. And it should be noted that Browning and Aaron Fuller executed a double-pass touchdown reception to Hunter Bryant to perfection on the opening drive of the third quarter.

On Wazzu’s only sack of the day, Washington’s pass protection was bamboozled by the Cougars’ six-man rush, most notably Ahmed, who missed picking up outside linebacker Willie Taylor III on a stunt. Taylor’s pressure combined with Browning’s careless ball security resulted in a fumble that gave Washington State the ball just outside of the red zone, and allowed the Cougs to score their second touchdown of the day and pull within five points of the Dawgs.

Rushing Defense: B

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Teams that employ the Air Raid will almost always put up rushing numbers that border on the atrocious, and Wazzu’s 41 yards (discounting yardage lost from sacks) and two touchdowns is a definite improvement over their -24 yards and one score from a year ago. That being said, Washington’s defensive front allowed only four runs for 10 yards or more, and held the Cougs to an average of 1.9 yards per carry on designed rushes.

Leading the way for the Huskies was (surprise, surprise) Ben Burr-Kirven, who racked up 10 tackles to go along with an interception and a fumble recovery. Brandon Wellington (eight tackles), Greg Gaines (three tackles and a sack) and Joe Tryon (three tackles and a sack) stood out for their high level of play on the evening, and three players (Jordan Miller, Gaines and Tryon) combined to produce Washington’s four tackles for loss.

Passing Defense: A

Gardner Minshew came into Friday’s Apple Cup as the nation’s leader in passing yards, and was just one week removed from earning 473 yards and seven touchdowns in Wazzu’s rout of Arizona.

Against the Huskies, he earned his first sub-100 passer rating of the season (99.34).

It’s difficult to put into context just how thoroughly Washington’s pass defense won their matchup against Wazzu’s erstwhile Heisman candidate, but allow me to try: Coming into the Apple Cup, Minshew averaged 393 yards, 3.3 touchdowns and 0.6 interceptions per game, and 7.5 yards per pass attempt. Against the Huskies, he accumulated 152 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions, and averaged 4.3 yards per attempt — meaning that he performed statistically about twice as poorly against the Huskies as he did in his average game during the 2018 season.

Washington’s defensive secondary under Jimmy Lake has established a reputation for not allowing opponents to make big gains over the top, and Minshew did nothing to change that perception Friday. His longest completions of the night went for 22 and 18 yards; his next best after those was one completion for 11 yards. Central to that effort were Byron Murphy (two tackles and an interception), Elijah Molden (four tackles and a near interception that was overturned on replay review) and Taylor Rapp (four tackles and a pass defense).

Special Teams: F

Ah yes, here we have it: The fly in the proverbial ointment. Washington’s kickoff coverage had one of its characteristic breakdowns Friday against Wazzu, with Travell Harris returning a Peyton Henry kick 47 yards to set the Cougs up for a short field resulting in a touchdown drive. On kickoff returns, Max Richmond fumbled a squib kick and gave the Cougars possession at UW’s 27-yard line, which thankfully didn’t prove catastrophic when Byron Murphy intercepted Minshew’s hail mary throw into the end zone. Joel Whitford gave a good effort on his one punt of the evening, flipping the field and giving WSU possession at their 21-yard line. Meanwhile, Jake Browning put a bit too much hot sauce on his one pooch punt attempt, which bounced into the end zone for a touchback and subsequently flipped just 15 yards in favor of the Huskies.

The Huskies also allowed Wazzu to block a PAT that Hunter Dale returned for a defensive two-point conversion, giving the Cougars a three-point swing that could have potentially been pivotal to the game’s outcome had WSU not struggled to get their defense off the field in the fourth quarter.

Coaching: A-

NCAA Football: Washington at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

There’s simply no point in arguing that Wazzu will ever have the upper hand against the Huskies as long as they are running the Air Raid, and Washington is churning out NFL-caliber cornerbacks and safeties. Washington has so thoroughly decoded Wazzu’s offensive schemes that it’s hard to imagine them posing a significant challenge to the Huskies until they change either coaches or philosophies (and perhaps both).

As the snow began to fall heavier and heavier as the game wore on, Bush Hamdan made the wise choice to feed the Washington State defense a steady diet of Myles Gaskin, whose consistent positive gains put Washington in manageably short second- and third-down situations, and made possible the huge gains that Browning completed on play-action passes. Hamdan also made a particularly smart call when he dialed up the double-pass to Hunter Bryant that the Cougars bought hook, line and sinker.

On defense, Jimmy Laked called a game that leaned directly into Washington’s strengths. Specifically, knowing that the Wazzu offense is predicated on quickly dumping off passes and allowing receivers to gain yards after the catch, Lake opted to rush just three defenders most play and drop six into shallow coverage, with two safeties preventing big plays over the top. That approach all but nullified the crossing routes that Mike Leach loves to utilize in getting his best playmakers into open space, and was a major contributor to Minshew’s awful yards per attempt metric.


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