The Huskies’ coaching staff is notoriously close-lipped. From week to week, fans are lucky if they get an update on injury recovery, let alone any juicy trash talk about upcoming opponents. That’s why it was so noteworthy when Jimmy Lake belittled Mike Leach after last year’s Apple Cup win. Lake said, “They do the same thing year in and year out […] so it makes it really easy to game-plan […] They can only do one thing – that handcuffs you a little bit. It was definitely to our advantage, and we took advantage of it.”
The candor of Lake’s comments was surprising, but the content was not. Anyone who has watched the recent matchups between the teams has seen UW’s defensive prowess with their own eyes. The two coaches have met five times since Petersen took over UW for the 2014 season. The Dawgs are 5-0 in that stretch, including three wins over a higher-ranked WSU team and a cumulative score of 190-69- an average of 38-14. Even if the Huskies have been the better team over that stretch, it’s surprising that any team could beat a competitive opponent by an average of 24 over a five-year run, let alone their arch-rival. Let’s take a year-by-year look at how that has happened.
2014: Washington 31 – Washington State 13 (Pullman)
Leach already had two years to build the WSU program when Petersen took over at UW, but the Huskies had a considerable head start with the talent on the roster. UW came into this game at 7-4 and WSU was only 3-8. UW scored the first 31 points before the Cougs answered with a pair of scores in garbage time. The Huskies won the turnover battle 3-1 and out-rushed WSU 188 yards (largely behind Dwayne Washington) to 21 (Luke Falk led the Cougs in “carries” because he was sacked 5 times). Budda Baker forced a fumble, and both Kevin King and John Ross intercepted Falk. Overall, Falk played well below his season averages with 55% pass accuracy, 6.2 adjusted yards per attempt, and a 2/2 TD/INT ratio (64%, 7.4, 13/7 for the year). This matchup would go on to be a house of horrors for Falk’s entire career. WSU’s 13 points were only 41% of their season average for points per game.
2015: Washington 45 – Washington State 10 (Seattle)
WSU came into this matchup having a much better season. They entered at 8-3 and ranked #20 in the country while the Dawgs were 5-6, had lost four of their previous six, and need a win to secure bowl eligibility. True freshmen Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin led the Husky offense, but the defense did most of the work. The shape of the game looked generally similar to the year before- a turnover advantage of 7 (!!!) to 1 and 240 UW rushing yards to 31. Peyton Bender started for WSU in place of Falk and averaged a miserable 3.8 adjusted y/a on 58 throws. He threw 2 INTs and the Cougs fumbled it away 5 times. The UW defense returned 3 of those turnovers directly for TDs. WSU’s 10 points were 32% of their season average.
2016: Washington 45 – Washington State 17 (Pullman)
While 2016 was a good year for WSU- 8-3 and #23 ranking coming in- it was a banner year for the Huskies that ended with a Pac-12 Title and a CFP berth. The game went according to plan for the Huskies with a 28-3 lead at the end of the first quarter. Jake Browning played one of the most efficient games of his career at 21-29, 292, 3/0. UW out-rushed WSU 168 to 65. Falk threw three interceptions against a single TD on the way to a 4-1 TO differential for UW. Falk averaged 3.1 adjusted y/a against a season average of 7.5. DJ Beavers played one of the best games of his career with an interception, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Following the trend, WSU’s 17 points were only 44% of their season average.
2017: Washington 41 – Washington State 14 (Seattle)
Washington State entered this game #14 in the country and tied for the Pac-12 North lead at 6-2. With a win, they would have gone to the Pac-12 title game due to their head-to-head win over Stanford. It was Falk’s senior year and Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch finally had his unit up to snuff. Everything was coming up Cougs, until…
Just like the 2014 game, UW burned out starting blocks and went up 34-0 going into the fourth quarter. A couple garbage time touchdowns from WSU didn’t make it look close, but at least they made it look like the Cougs showed up. Care to guess where differences were? UW out-rushed WSU 328 to 24 (Falk, again, led the team in rushing attempts by virtue of 5 sacks). UW won the turnover battle 4-0, three of which were interceptions by Falk. Twelve different Husky defenders had at least one havoc play (TFL, Sack, INT, PD, FF). Falk finished his WSU career with 119 TDs and 39 INTs. In three Apple Cups, the ratio was 4 TDs to 8 INTs. As usual, WSU’s 14 points were less than half (46%) of their season average.
2018: Washington 28 – Washington State 15 (Pullman)
This game will go down in history as the time that many residents of Eastern Washington learned that it can snow in Pullman. Just like the year before, WSU came into the game one win away from the Pac-12 title game. This time, Gardner Minshew had them at 10-1 and all the way up to #7 in the country. UW was a respectable 8-3, and a win would catapult the Dawgs over the Cougs to the conference title game. For what it’s worth, this game was considerably closer than previous versions. WSU actually won the turnover battle 3-2 due to a pair of lost fumbles by the Dawgs. Gaskin had another terrific game against WSU with 170 yards and 3 TDs (he totaled 550 yards and 10 TDs in his four Apple Cups). Minshew threw two of the nine picks he had all year, and his adjusted y/a of 1.8 was a far cry from his season average of 7.8. The Cougs pulled to within 20-15 late in the third quarter, so when the Huskies made it a two-score lead on Gaskin’s 80-yard TD run in the fourth, the coaches were happy to play conservatively and wrap up the win. The 258 to 85 rushing advantage was another key to the game. If you’re wondering, the 15 points were exactly 40% of their average for the year. That means that every time Leach has faced Petersen, his team has scored less than half of their average point total from that season.
It’s no surprise that WSU falls far behind in rushing yards because the running game is not a big part of their offense, but their inability to stop the UW run has been a major factor in this series, almost as significant as UW’s ability to contain the air raid and force turnovers.
One other number stand out to me. In five matchups, UW has won the turnover battle 19-6 (a ratio that looks oddly similar to the 190-69 cumulative score). As Lake mentioned, UW’s defensive game plan hasn’t changed dramatically during this run. The Dawgs usually trade out a down lineman for an extra member of the secondary for a dime look. The Huskies blitz only occasionally and get as much pressure as possible with three and four-man rushes. As they do generally, the Husky coaches trust their secondary to tackle in space and take advantage of offensive errors. With 50+ pass attempts per game, the Cougs have lots of chances to make mistakes, and historically they have made their fair share. It has proven to be a very sound game plan, and the relative talent levels will have to change drastically to yield consistently different results.
If you are interested in attending this year’s Apple Cup, check out StubHub for available tickets at this link: https://www.stubhub.com/washington-huskies-football-tickets-washington-huskies-football-seattle-husky-stadium-11-29-2019/event/103961820/?sort=price+asc&gcid=CHAFF-_-GEOUS-_-VNAFFW-_-PGCONTENT-_-PUB173843-_-GENALL&awc=7219_1574449417_a0d259b84e1beea7a2247e2f1a6395db