You're worried about the Apple Cup. It's okay to admit it. No matter the records or the year, the Apple Cup is always a big deal for both sides, and Luke Falk's head injury has you nervous. But don't be.
It's natural to jump to doom and gloom when the starting quarterback goes down. When you factor in high expectations going into the Apple Cup, and the chance to guarantee the Huskies a losing season, it's easy to see why there's a ton of tension in the fan base. But if there's one thing we've learned about this team, this year, it's that they continue to rise to the challenge.
Luke Falk is out for the Apple Cup. So what if Peyton Bender is starting? It's not going to change the offensive gameplan. And beyond the quarterback situation, the Cougs come in with plenty of reasons to feel very good about the Apple Cup.
Peyton Bender is good … you just haven't seen much of him. The first real impression we got of Bender this year was a couple of short-armed passes coming in cold against UCLA. Looked shaky right? Except he then threw a dime to Dom Williams on a fade in the end zone. He came in against Colorado, again cold, and immediately took a shot deep to Williams. There was also the beautiful touchdown pass to Marks, and multiple other big-time throws. He forced a few things, and made a few poor throws, but the potential is there. He had this week to prepare, as well.
Remember this: There was an actual quarterback competition in camp. It wasn't for show, either; Bender made his case. He has the talent.
Gabe Marks is still playing. So is Dom Williams. Just remember that. The Cougs still have two incredibly dangerous receivers on the outside. They can stretch the field and open the game, or take a short pass to the house. All Bender has to do is get the ball in the vicinity of these two -- in space, or against 1-on-1 -- and the Cougar offense is in business. It's nice to have that luxury.
The run game exists. If Washington wants to sell out to stop Marks and Williams, and the rest of the receivers, that's fine. The running backs have shown they'll take their five yards against the run box, and maybe even bust one. The running game isn't just for show anymore; it can actually gash a defense. That goes a long way towards taking the pressure off the quarterback, whoever it is.
The screen game exists too. Want to slow down a pass rush and keep the pressure off the quarterback? Let em through! Washington State has shown an excellent screen game this year, both to the running backs and receivers. You'll hear it time and again on the broadcast, but these are like run plays. Screens get the ball out fast, and get it into the hands of playmakers. It's an easy way for, say, a backup QB to pick up confidence or take some easy yards that can quickly turn into a big play.
You're betting on the system. We've seen starting quarterbacks go down twice in a significant way under Leach: Jeff Tuel gave way to Connor Halliday early in 2012, and Halliday's broken leg led to Falk starting last season. In each case, the backup came in and, making their first start, lit a team up (Halliday at UNLV and Falk at Oregon State).
Those are two cherry-picked cases. But the point is this: Leach has a firm belief that the system is the system, and that the pieces operating the system are interchangeable. For weeks now, WSU has been playing without its left tackle and most reliable inside receiver. It played against Colorado without its best center. In every case, the next guy up has slid right in and been effective. Leach believes this is the case for every spot, including at quarterback. And he happens to think the replacement piece at quarterback is a pretty good one, too.
It's why Leach won't dwell on injuries. If you dwell on injuries, he believes, then you're making an excuses. If you're worried about the injured piece of the system, you're not getting the replacement ready to be inserted. In a football sense, he doesn't care who is injured and who isn't. He'll just keep plugging players in and believing the system will continue to hum along.
The defense is still playing out of its mind. It keeps getting better every week. And while it does live on the edge and sometimes puts itself in bad spots, or gets backed up, it continues to make big play after big play.
The Washington offense will play a mean front seven and a back end that can be opportunistic enough to make a play. The Cougs have been good at forcing turnovers, and have a knack for popping the ball out. They'll need a big game, but they continue to rise to the challenge.
Have the Cougs let you down yet? You keep waiting for it to happen, probably. Amidst an outstanding run that started at Oregon, you've been waiting for a letdown, because it's probably conditioned into your brain.
Except that hasn't happened. Even when given the opportunity to roll over and quit during a game, or overlook an opponent, the Cougs haven't done it. They've come out strong and punched teams in the mouth. The Apple Cup is another chance to prove themselves. They taken each of those chances.