There’s lots to dissect in this season’s unusual 7-game schedule. The shortened season and unusual timeline with the delayed start have captured most of the headlines. Outside of those storylines, we’ve all gone through our usual schedule analysis. When’s the big games? Who do we travel to? Who did we draw as our cross-division opponent?
While the big games and usual questions suck all the oxygen out of the room, its the trap games that have been bigger stumbling blocks in recent years. Everyone knows that we’ll bring our A-game against Oregon, Stanford, and Cal. Those are the games that have decided the Pac-12 North in recent years, but the shortened season makes every game worth that much more. In 2017 we stumbled over Arizona State, in 2018 it was Cal, and in 2019 it was Colorado. There’s just no margin for error this year.
Who should we be on the look out for this year? I think our schedule has tee’d up two teams to set traps for us; Oregon State and Washington State. OSU has been surprisingly competitive since Jonathan Smith took over in 2018, and they could be a team on the rise in the North. Wins over UCLA, Arizona, and Arizona State, plus close losses against Stanford, WSU, and our Huskies should serve as a wake up call that we can’t count on handily beating them. However, my pick for our biggest trap game next season is the Apple Cup versus WSU.
New Head Coaches Headline the Apple Cup
Gone are the days of Chris Petersen’s teams ruthlessly hammering Mike Leach’s Air Raid Cougars, and 2020 will debut a match up of successors in Jimmy Lake and Nick Rolovich. Husky fans are already familiar with Chris Petersen’s successor, Jimmy Lake, who was a defensive coordinator and assistant for us for years. However, on the Cougar sideline, Rolo will look to shake up a WSU team that had the classic Leach experience of toppling heavy favorites (4-1 vs Oregon from ‘15-’19) but also taking embarrassing losses to FCS teams like Eastern Washington (‘16) & Portland State (‘15), as well as a 7-game losing streak in the Apple Cup.
Leach leaving for Mississippi State seemed like a mutually agreeable move. The program had probably reached it’s Leach-capable ceiling, and I didn’t get the sense that Leach was ready to spend the rest of his career in Pullman. When Rolovich was announced as his successor, my first reaction was that this was a good hire for the program. He had enough similarities to Leach that he could build on Leach’s successes, but he was an external hire that could bring new energy to the program. While he’s already had his hiccups this offseason, I don’t think that we can assume that our past success against Leach will be indicative of future success against Rolo.
Outside of bringing fresh energy to WSU, Rolovich also brings different systems and philosophies to the Apple Cup match up. While Rolo doesn’t have any Pac-12 experience on his resume, he’s been impressive as a head coach with a 10-5 record in 2019 and a 28-27 overall record at Hawaii, where it has been notoriously difficult to build a competitive program without serious innovation. Fortunately for the Cougs, Rolo’s scheme is such that he has the personnel on the roster to make it work immediately.
The SparkNotes description of Rolo’s scheme is that it’s a hybridized Run N’ Shoot (RNS). Similar to how Dana Holgorsen and Lincoln Riley modified the Air Raid, Rolovich has adapted the RNS to fit today’s game. The RNS is a pass-heavy, 4-WR-based scheme that leans heavily on option routes and sight adjustments in the passing game. The option routes are what separate the Air Raid from the RNS as QBs and WRs make simultaneous reads post-snap, so play concepts can adjust mid-play to attack weaknesses in the defense. Option routes have been adopted by all sorts of offenses, but most RNS plays have option tags for every WR. This makes zone defenses, a staple of our winning game plans against Leach, much more susceptible to getting gashed. Building off of the traditional RNS system he mastered as Hawaii’s starting QB under June Jones, Rolovich incorporated innovative option and QB-run schemes that he picked up during his time as Nevada’s OC under the “Pistol” innovator, Chris Ault. These
Option routes give their passing game more tools to attack our defense’s usual anti-Air Raid game plan, but an updated run game featuring a dual-threat QB could really challenge Pac-12 defenses. Ian Boyd had a great breakdown of Rolo’s rushing schemes that turbo charged the pure Run N’ Shoot back in 2018. The addition of true freshman Jayden De Laura out of St. Louis HS (HI), a dual-threat QB, also stood out to me since he has the tools to jump start Rolo’s offense. De Laura was a top target for Rolo when he was at UH, not only because St. Louis was mere blocks from the UH campus, but also because De Laura was groomed in the RNS under former UH OC Ron Lee. Take a look at his highlights, and you can see that he is a playmaker.
UPDATE: Since drafting this piece, word out of the WSU camp scrimmages is that De Laura is gaining traction, and it may be realistic to expect him getting snaps in live games as soon as this year.
Looking Ahead in the Schedule
Another factor that could play into an Apple Cup trap game is this year’s scheduling format. Unlike most seasons where rivalry weekend is the final regular season game, UW will have both Stanford and Oregon to look forward to after WSU. I’m hesitant to say that we will overlook the Apple Cup since it’s one of our longest standing rivalries. However, I do get the sense that we’ve become accustomed to dominating this series over the last few years. Mike Leach had become predictable, and we haven’t had a truly competitive, nail-biter of an Apple Cup in years.
With two competitive games scheduled for the weeks following the Apple Cup, I can easily see a situation where we lose sight of what is right in front of our team, especially if we are undefeated with some momentum behind us heading down the stretch. This is a young team that doesn’t have the experience under the bright lights that our last few teams have had. We may have been to multiple NY6 bowls over the last few years, but there are few remaining veterans left on the roster to steer the ship and maintain focus. It may end up being a moot point, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves this year.