Gabey Lucas (7-4 Straight Up, 7-4 Against the Spread)
While this should be one of the better defenses Washington faces all year, I’m feeling a lot more confident going into this game than I was three weeks ago. Is that obvious? Yeah, sorry.
While I could see the Dawgs opening very slowly a month or so ago like versus Cal and OSU, they seem the last two weeks to have really realized the extent to which they can rely on the passing game even against opponents where defending that is their strength.
The matchup that I feel especially favors Washington though is their pass rush versus Cam Ward. Yes, Ward has improved lately by changing his approach to not try to do so much, but he still tends to step into sacks within the pocket; for context, Wazzu’s only game without him being sacked was against Stanford, and he was sacked more in one game — Oregon State — than Michael Penix has been all season. (Ward’s season total is 34, almost seven times as many times as Penix has been sacked — and much of those have been on him more than his line.) Even with the Huskies’ secondary being a clear weak point, it feels like Trice, Martin, ZTF, and Co. should be able to make Ward uncomfortable. And in that scenario, I don’t particularly see a route forward for Ward and the Cougar offense to keep up with Penix, the Washington offensive line’s pass pro, and their talented and deep receiving corps.
With that in mind, I’ll go:
Washington- 34, Washington State- 28
Andrew Berg (7-4 SU, 6-5 ATS)
It’s an uncommon feeling in recent Apple Cup history for the game to feel like a true toss-up. Chris Petersen and Pete Kwiatkowski so thoroughly solved Mike Leach’s air raid that the game lacked some degree of suspense, even in Leach’s best Pullman seasons. In the other direction, the 2021 version of the game was a disaster for the Dawgs before it even started and marked the low point of the Jimmy Lake era, even after Lake had been dismissed. This year feels different; the coaches, the matchups, the location, and the weather have converged to make the game an even affair.
At 7-4 and already bowl eligible heading into the Apple Cup, Jake Dicker’s first full season as WSU Head Coach has already been a success. Getting a second win over Washington would catapult it to a much higher status in Pullman. After a three-game losing streak dropped the Cougs to 4-4, the offensive focus for the team has shifted. While the air raid principles are still there, the play calling has taken some of the pressure off QB Cam Ward and moved it to a stable of running backs, led by Nakia Watson. Simplifying the game for Ward has improved his efficiency and led to a three game winning streak, though you could argue that the better team won all six of those games and the inferior opponents just happened to be clustered toward the end. As a Husky fan, I have to say that I would prefer to face an efficient running game than an erratic-yet-explosive passing attack given the way the season has played out. We will see if I live to regret that formulation.
Offensively, UW should be able to fall back on the passing offense that has carried the team all year. WSU’s defense has been one of the better ones in the Pac all year, but the advanced stats show that they are better against the rush (18th in EPA/play) than against the pass (72nd). As always, Michael Penix and Ryan Grubb will have to find the weak spots in the defense and calibrate the weapons to exploit them. After a pair of quiet weeks for Rome Odunze, it would be an ideal time to find a way to get the team’s best play-maker the ball and let him go to work. While there is reason for concern on the road, in the cold, against a good defense, I still feel confident that Penix will find a way to top 300 yards and 30 points. Given WSU’s recent offensive performances, I think that may be enough.
Washington- 31, Washington State- 28
Max Vrooman (9-2 SU, 4-7 ATS)
Last year’s Apple Cup was an experience that no Husky fan wants to see repeated any time soon. Washington had been dominant in this rivalry when the Cougs were at the helm of Mike Leach and Husky nation certainly hopes that the DeBoer vs. Dickert matchup will be similarly one-sided towards the side of the purple and gold.
This game certainly won’t be a cakewalk though. Washington State definitely lags behind the Huskies in overall team quality but there’s a reason the spread is under a field goal. The Cougars by most advanced metrics rank somewhere in the 30-35 range nationally and all of their losses this season have come to teams currently ranked. They missed UCLA in the conference schedule but on the flip side didn’t get the benefit of playing Colorado. They’re 7-0 against teams worse than them in SP+ and 0-4 against better squads; a trend UW hopes will continue.
Another trend we’re hoping will continue is that Washington State is 0-4 when their opponent has scored at least 21 points. The Cougar defense is potentially the best that the Huskies have faced all season and because of that Wazzu has really only been involved in one shootout (a 44-41 home loss to Oregon). That Duck offense, along with USC, are the only two teams with similar firepower to the Husky offense and unsurprisingly they were the 2 teams that have put up at least 30 points on WSU so far.
That’s the clear strength on strength side while when the Cougars have the ball it will be weakness versus weakness. Wazzu has won 3 straight against worse competition and in that time have turned Cam Ward from a wild card into a game manager. After 8 interceptions in the first 7 games he has thrown none in the last 4. However during their 3-game winning streak he also hasn’t eclipsed even 6.0 yards per attempt which is abysmal. Instead, the Cougars are relying on being a running team with Nakia Watson and Ward’s scrambling. If Washington State is able to consistently move the ball it will be because Ward picks up several 3rd downs with his legs and UW isn’t able to tackle on the never-ending quick out throws the Cougs like to utilize.
I feel like every year in the Petersen/Leach era I would say “this is the year Washington State keeps it close”. And every year the Huskies would end up with a decisive victory. Well this is the year Washington State keeps it close. The Dawgs regret settling for a few field goals in the red zone but make up for it with a late 2-point conversion to come away with the W and cap off a 10-win regular season.
Washington- 28, Washington State- 27