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PREVIEW: More than you need to know about the Apple Cup

The Apple Cup is here. Let’s see how Washington State matches up with Washington.

Apple Cup 2019 Washington State UW WSU Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s almost Black Friday, and lately that means it’s almost time for the Apple Cup (Friday at 1 pm, FOX). The Washington State Cougars head to Seattle to take on the rival Washington Huskies while much of the country is either making themselves a fourth turkey sandwich or taking no shame in elbowing a small child in order to get a discounted smart speaker. For many years, this game has made Coug fans wish they were doing the latter instead of watching.

Last year I was in Australia for the Apple Cup, at a friend’s in Melbourne taking a short weekend respite from a grueling work trip that saw me on flights every other day. I watched the snowstorm with a VPN in his living room as his family set up for his nine-year-old’s birthday party. I spent the game blowing up balloons and explaining American football to his 11-year-old daughter (she really just wanted to see the American commercials).

As soon as the game ended—and the timing wasn’t even planned—a swarm of kids descended on the house. I had not a single moment to process what happened or sulk over the outcome, and that was nice. I’ll offer up a lot of stats and figures and insight into how the Apple Cup might go in the next 1400 words or so, but my biggest piece of insight is this: Have a potential plan for after the Apple Cup, so maybe it won’t always be a day-ruiner. If things go well in the game, then just bring a flask to whatever you are doing to celebrate.

Of course, last year’s Apple Cup loss and the year before and the year before hurt quite a lot more because it denied WSU a trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game. In two of those years—2016 and 2018—it sent UW to that same game. That’s rubbing salt in a wound. This year, the stakes aren’t quite as high, merely the difference in lower-level bowl locations.

Not many expected this to be a battle of 6-5 (3-6) teams. UW looked sure to contend for the league again, and WSU were to do the same if a few things bounced its way. Not much has bounced the way of either program this season, so here we are. We must not forget, however, that this was a battle of two absolutely programs in decline for a while, and seeing both programs with winning records hasn’t always been the standard.

What has become the standard recently is Chris Petersen’s team absolutely destroying Mike Leach’s team. Let’s examine the key players and trends that might change that or just keep things the same.

When Washington has the ball...

The overall SP+ rating for UW’s offense is good—24th, with the expectation to score 35 points on an average defense. WSU’s defense is far below average, ranked 98th in the same measurement, expecting to give up 33.7 point to an average offense. However, in the last two weeks the Huskies have scored 19 against the 107th-ranked defense (Oregon State) and 14 against the 98th-ranked defense (Colorado).

With the exception of Colorado, the WSU defense seems to bring out the best in all offenses. So, it is hard to just accept that it will have similar success against the Huskies as CU and OSU. I’ll just continue on pretending those games aren’t the most recent and potentially most relevant data points. Maybe they are just bad matchups, you know?

What seems particularly important, given recent history between these two teams, is Washington’s ground game. The Huskies have been consistent on the ground—the 14th-best success rate nationally. They have not been particularly explosive, though, ranking 78th in yards per carry and 119th in explosive rush rate.

Salvon Ahmed has taken the reins as the top running back for UW this year. He hasn’t been the workhorse that Myles Gaskin was previously, averaging under 17 carries per game. Ahmed has used his 166 carries to gain 915 yards—5.5 per rush—and nine touchdowns. He picks up 10 yards or more on about 14 percent of carries and has a long of 89 this season, so he does have the potential for explosiveness.

In short yardage, expect to see freshman Richard Newton carry the ball. He has seven touchdowns in just 93 attempts. He’s also averaging just 4.4 yards a rush, and picks up 10 or more just under 12 percent fo the time. Neither back is used much in the passing game.

Speaking of the passing game, as Jacob Eason goes, the UW offense typically goes. He has been explosive at times, but he has been erratic at other times. He seems to struggle with pressure, but often slices up defenses when given a clean pocket. Overall, the stats look solid—7.6 yards per attempt, completing 64 percent of his passes for 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Three of those picks of have come in the last two games, and he couldn’t touch 6.0 yards an attempt either time. It’s not surprising UW’s offense struggled. Getting pressure on Eason will be vital, that’s when we see him play poorly. That pressure might not always be in the form of sacks—UW has given up just 18 sacks or one every 21 attempts. WSU’s defense sacks the quarterback every 17.5 dropbacks, so we can expect one or two sacks in this game.

Beyond bringing him down, just getting Eason off his spot and forcing him to move around in the pocket can lead to mistakes and errant throws. If the Cougs want to slow down the Husky passing attack, they need to get in the backfield consistently, even when they don’t get all the way home.

I do expect UW to live more on the ground than it has throughout the season, though. I doubt the Huskies will move away from what has worked for them so well in recent Apple Cups. WSU has only really stopped the run once recently, and that was when Stanford just decided to abandon it altogether.

The Coug defense has low expectations, but it needs to just do well enough against the run game to force passing situations. Making Eason uncomfortable on those passing downs could lead to good things.

If WSU can prevent big plays, forcing UW to grind out drives, that could change the balance. The Huskies are just 73rd nationally in scoring opportunity touchdown rate (when inside the 40) and 67th in redzone touchdown rate. The Cougs are bad in most places, but they are above average in preventing touchdowns in scoring opportunities and redzone situations.

Knowing this Cougar defense, there will be some big plays. The key will be preventing enough to keep the score within striking distance.

When Washington State has the ball...

The history of WSU’s Air Raid against Chris Petersen isn’t pretty. It has often started slow, and been unable to keep games close. There have been many three-and-outs that have allowed to UW to build quick leads and bury games early. Does this Husky staff just have Mike Leach’s number? With a relatively weakened UW defense against pique WSU offense, we’ll find out on Friday.

UW’s defense, while not the dominant force it has been, is still good—and defending the pass is its strength, if not to the extreme it has been in the past. The Huskies are 36th in yards per pass against, 43rd in passing success rate against, and 33rd in passing down success rate against.

This will be Washington’s biggest test in the air—the Cougs are 13th in yards per pass, third in passing success rate, and second on passing down success rate. Wazzu also boasts the second-best standard down success rate, against a UW defense that ranks 66th in standard down success rate against.

If we took away the names of these teams, I’d immediately says “this offense can move the ball through the air against this defense.” That hasn’t happened since Petersen took over, so I’m a little hesitant to make that declaration. If WSU can’t throw the ball, we can blame the devil magic/defense that UW deploys and continue writing this game off forever and ever.

How about when Max Borghi carries the ball? WSU does run it sometimes, and sometimes for game-winning touchdowns. The Huskies are 69th in rushing success rate against, 93rd in stuff rate (how often they stop runs at or behind the line of scrimmage), and 75th in opportunity rate allowed (rushes of five yards or more). WSU is 9th in rushing success rate, 50th in stuff rate and 54th in opportunity rate.

Again—this is up to picking the right time to run. If UW is going to sell out to stop the pass, Borghi might be able to gash them for some yardage against those infamous light boxes. Still, the Cougs haven’t been as consistent with gaining successful yardage on the ground as they through the air, so you’ll still see plenty of throws.

If WSU does move the ball like it should, it will presented with some scoring and redzone opportunities. The Cougs have been good in converting for touchdowns when getting inside the 40—13th best nationally. The Huskies are 31st in scoring opportunity touchdown rate.

This is the best Cougar offense we’ve seen under Leach. Hopefully it can avoid the typical Apple Cup letdown.

The Bottom Line

I say this every week, but all other things equal this game would come down to converting in scoring opportunities and redzone trips on both sides. The team that can force field goals and turnovers close to the goal line more frequently is likely to win.

Still, there are other dumb things that can impact the game. Anthony Gordon getting through a game without an interception for the first time since Arizona State would help. It would also help if WSU’s wide receivers avoided their oddly frequent fumbles. The WSU defense is just gonna do its shaky thing, and we probably shouldn’t expect too much of it (unless Eason really is broken).

This isn’t a matchup where one mistake will doom the Cougs, but they will need to avoid piling them up, particularly early. Keep it clean, finish your drives, take Eason off his spot, and end the damn streak.