The Washington State Cougars (8-3) pack up their undisputed No. 20 ranking (Coaches/AP/CFB Playoff) and head over the pass to the West side of the state for a lunch date with rival Washington (5-6) on Friday (12:30 p.m. PT, FOX). The Huskies are a young team this year, with over half of their starters on offense and defense being freshman or sophomores, and have had the up and down season that would reflect that.
UW got a big upset win over USC, while the Trojans were going through major coaching issues, and completely waxed both Arizona -- when the Wildcats forgot to show up -- and the Beavers in Corvallis. A turnover-riddled effort cost them against both Cal and Utah, and what's best described as an offensive implosion cost them against ASU. Young teams do these things.
Throughout the season, it's been UW's defense that's kept most every game competitive while they wait and see if the offense can do enough damage to the scoreboard.
Head coach Chris Petersen brought along his Boise State defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski when he took over in Montlake. Coach Kwiatkowski (QUIT-cow-ski) had held the DC post for the past four years at BSU under Petersen, where his defenses allowed 18 points per game on average. The Huskies currently give up 18.5 (15th nationally) a game and rank 12th nationally in defense S&P+. They will be the best defense WSU has faced all season.
What made them so successful as a mid-major is what's making them one of the best defenses in a Power Five conference now: Versatility.
The Huskies will predominantly show a 4-2-5 look, or a base nickel. What makes it difficult is that nearly every skill guy on the field can transition to run-stop, pass rush or pass defense at the snap. Their base can morph into a 4-3 or 3-4 just as easily as it can to a Dime (6 DBs).
Against balanced 4-WR sets, like WSU's Ace, and 20 personnel (two RBs), you can read coverage from the boundary corner. He'll open is hips and drop with outside leverage in Cover 4, which is their go-to in the mid-field.
From this base, the Huskies have a lot of options. They can bring an outside backer on a blitz, and roll the safety to that side (typically field side) down to cover the vacated underneath zone, transitioning to Cover 3. They've also blitzed the field safety and worked man coverage.
Against trips (3x1) the Huskies really like to play Cover 1, with a free safety ball-hawking, and work pattern-matching man coverage underneath. It allows the secondary to be really aggressive when the ball is in the air and generally provides multiple defenders around a receiver to prevent yards after catch, even when they do find holes in coverage.
The offense is what has prevented UW from being a really strong team this year. Which can be expected with a true freshman taking snaps. Browning has oscillated in passer rating between 90 and 200 with three games settled around 120 (for comparison, all of Luke Falk's games but Stanford have been between 120 and 180), consistency has been a bit of an issue.
The Husky offense relies a little on downfield passing, and when Browning has been able to hit receivers they've done well. He's passed for over eight yards per attempt four times -- all of which resulted in UW wins. In the other games -- all losses except USC -- Browning's averaged 5.9 yards per attempt. The Husky receivers have all been capable of getting open downfield, just passes have tended to either be five yards out of reach or underthrown to the point it becomes a 50/50 ball. These deficiencies haven't deterred them from taking shots yet and I suspect it won't on Black Friday either.
Petersen, perhaps more than any other coach in the conference, uses formation and motion to make his offense really effective. When we previewed the game against Cal, we highlighted a Husky offensive drive which I'd recommend checking out. Nothing UW does in the run game is particularly complex, stretch zone - power - inside zone - counter, but how they get there usually is. They have a huge number of offensive formations.
There's a chance you'll see this a lot.
Anytime you see UW get into this Wing-T style formation, which we'll just call "Slot", there's a really good chance they either run counter with a pulling guard or work play action bootlegs off it. They motion into, and out of, this set fairly regularly.
You'll see Browning exaggerate clapping his hands a few times before the snap, sometimes it initiates motion or a formation shift, sometimes it doesn't. They'll typically use at least one tight end, a lot of the time two, and very frequently have them set in the backfield as an up-back.
The movement and formation shifts are used to not only create match-up advantages schematically, but also alter the keys for a defense by attempting to convince their eyes to be somewhere they don't need to be.
What has me concerned about Washington
Pass Defense. The Huskies lead the conference in overall defense, holding teams to 4.89 yards per play, and are second in the conference (behind UCLA) in pass defense, giving up 208 passing yards per game on 6.8 yards per attempt. But, they've allowed the 5th most pass plays over 20 yards in the PAC-12 and their 12.0 yards per completion ranks a mediocre 57th nationally. They've faced an average 31 passing attempts per game and rank 84th in passes defensed to incompletions (30.2 pct).
The Husky defense is extremely good, on the borderline of being great, but they also haven't been tested by an offense quite like WSU's. UW has faced less than 30 pass attempts in seven out of their 10 games.
Tom Foolery. Ever since Petersen's first season at BSU in 2006, where the Broncos upset Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl on a Statue Of Liberty play, Boise State and Petersen have been synonymous with gimmicks. Since it is the "last game of the year, Brent", don't expect to make it through the game without UW emptying its bag of tricks.
Petersen on opening kickoff lateral: "We always have a bunch of things in our back pocket. We've held onto a lot of things"— Dave Softy Mahler (@Softykjr) November 23, 2015
Jaydon Mickens. The senior WR is the Huskies' biggest playmaker on offense, garnering a target rate of 22 pct and has 516 yards on the season with 11.5 yards per catch. They use Mickens all over the field and try to get him involved as much as possible. Mickens has the type of speed you really need to be concerned about and is extremely dangerous in space.
Standard Downs. UW's defense ranks 12th nationally in adjusted sack rate on standard downs (7.1 pct), while WSU's offense ranks 73rd (giving up a sack on 5.3 pct of dropbacks).
In the marquee match-up of this game -- WSU offense vs. UW defense -- the battle will lie in whether UW can keep the Cougs from being on pace to move the sticks, something they're extremely good at (10th nationally). The Huskies are drastically more aggressive on standard downs, and setting WSU in long down-and-distance scenarios with early down sacks could be really key to slowing the Wazzu attack.
Christian Caple, former beat writer for WSU and overall good dude, now covering the Huskies for the Tacoma News Tribune, was kind enough to drop in and offer his thoughts on the game
What are you most confident in about the Washington Huskies?
"It would probably be pretty lazy to just say "the defense," so I'll try to be a little more specific and highlight the secondary a bit (though I do think the entire unit has been pretty stellar all season, especially when you account for how inefficient their offense has been in so many games). Going back to last year's Apple Cup, the Huskies were starting two true freshmen (Budda Baker at free safety and Sidney Jones at cornerback) and two true sophomores (Kevin King at strong safety and John Ross III, a converted receiver, at cornerback) in the defensive backfield. And they played pretty well in that game -- Ross had his first career interception, King had an interception, too, and the DBs benefited from a consistent pass rush and helped keep the Cougars scoreless for the game's first 50 minutes.
"That was the high point for a group that had been the defense's biggest liability for much of the season. This year, though, they've been a strength. Baker and Jones combined to start 26 games last year, and that experience has shown -- Baker is all over the place, and Jones is suddenly one of the Pac-12's toughest cover corners. King moved over to nickel, which the Huskies play quite a bit (though he also plays corner) Darren Gardenhire, a guy who played sparingly last year as a true freshman, has started several games at cornerback and can hold his own. And they've gotten a little more out of senior Brian Clay at strong safety, with JoJo McIntosh, a hard-hitting safety, filling in pretty well when they've been a little banged up. They rank 25th nationally in pass efficiency defense, they've allowed only eight passing touchdowns this season (despite a mediocre-ish average of 6.8 yards allowed per pass attempt), and they've allowed opponents to complete only 56.3 percent of their passes.
"The Huskies have more experience and production at linebacker -- Travis Feeney, Cory Littleton, Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria have been a pretty formidable crew -- and that group has definitely been steady all season, too. UW's defense hasn't really shown an obvious weakness -- they rank 22nd nationally in yards per play allowed and tied for 15th in scoring defense. But the secondary has stood out to me, maybe because of how far behind those guys were a year ago".
What has me confident about Wazzu
Throw it up to 9. Gabe Marks is un-guardable. We've said it throughout the season, but he could wear a defender like a cape and it'd still be a good idea to look his direction. Marks has been a huge playmaker for Wazzu all year, and you really can't say enough about his leadership. The Biletnikoff finalists were recently announced, sans the WSU wideout who has the stats to deserve to be there, and it may have lit a little extra fire in him this week. As if that dude needed it.
Here's how Marks compares to the top two Washington receivers, Jadon Mickens and Joshua Perkins, combined. Marks, as well as the sum of Mickens and Perkins both have 128 targets this year.
If there is any concern about a back-up starting a game, having a guy like Gabe Marks* outside making plays should alleviate a lot of it.
*Dom Williams is pretty damn good too.
BALL! The Huskies are tied for first in the conference with the most lost fumbles (10-of-14), while the Cougs sit atop the conference in forced fumbles (15), averaging around 1.3 per game. While Browning is a little interception heavy for his pass attempts (9 INTs), the turnovers could come from stripping the ball carrier, which Wazzu has done twice in each of the past two games and at least once in every game this season since week one.
Pressure. The Coug D is still ferocious in the front-seven with a LB havoc rate that ranks 13th in the nation, and average sack rates on both standard (4.8 pct) and passing (7.7 pct) downs. The UW OL has struggled keeping Browning upright, giving up a sack rate of 8.2 pct which is second among conference starters only to Vernon Adams and his Johnny Football-like tendencies.
No Fly (end)Zone. The Cougs haven't given up a passing touchdown in the past four games, and UW didn't win any of the three games in which Browning didn't throw for a TD. The Coug pass defense is actually up to 35th in S&P+, and ranks 12th in limiting explosives. They are the only team in the conference, and one of 10 in the nation, that haven't given up a pass play of over 50 yards.
What about Wazzu should have the Huskies concerned?
"With all that said ... the Huskies haven't faced a group of receivers as talented as Washington State's. Gabe Marks might be the toughest cover in the Pac-12, and Dom Williams isn't far behind (though y'all don't need me to tell you that). And beyond those two, WSU just seems to have so many guys who are capable of catching the ball and doing something with it -- and at running back, too, which isn't particularly common. UW's defensive backs coach, Jimmy Lake, said his group is embracing the challenge of defending 60 or 70 pass attempts in a single game, and that it's the kind of game that a defensive back looks forward to. But he said it definitely takes some mental fortitude -- it's possible that UW could play lights-out and feel like it defended the pass pretty well and still give up 35 or so completions, and the Huskies' DBs have to learn to be OK with that. Maybe that's the most important thing for UW's defense -- knowing the Cougars are going to get their yards, but still having the confidence to make the stops when they need to."
How I see this game playing out
Obviously, it's hard to read tea leaves in general, let alone when you don't know who the starting quarterback for one side will be. There isn't a huge drop-off in talent between Luke Falk and Peyton Bender, who is quite possibly a more naturally gifted passer, but there is in experience. And the Cougs have relied on Falk's late-game ability to win it for them all season, something we just don't know if Bender has in him yet.
What we do know is that Coach Leach's Air Raid is a system offense, that allows for a level of plug-n-play that's not as common elsewhere in the college landscape. If Bender goes, the Cougs will be fine. The offense won't be limited under Bender, and he's had a full week of prep without school in session to get himself ready as The Guy. Bender will be slightly more aggressive than Falk downfield, and will probably toss an INT or two into the teeth of a really good UW pass defense, but he's also entirely capable of not only moving the offense consistently but making spectacular throws.
The only two times the Huskies have put up more than 24 points in conference play were their two blowout wins over Arizona and Oregon State. That's the question. Can UW's offense score more than three TDs while the defense erases two TDs off the Wazzu average. If the game gets anywhere near a shootout, it plays directly in WSU's favor.
WSU needs to push pace on the Huskies, get them away from the balanced run-pass game they like, and force Browning into attempting passes downfield. It will be close and physical, and with so much attention being paid to the Coug offense versus the Husky defense, it will probably be a game that's decided when the roles are reversed.
Final score: WSU 37 - 34 UW
And Mr. Caple...
"So much of it depends on Luke Falk's health. I've heard nothing but good things about Peyton Bender and his capabilities, and it's certainly possible that he can play well enough to lead WSU to a victory. But it might be a little unrealistic to expect him to come off a short practice week and play like Falk has all season. Anyway, I think UW could struggle to move the ball consistently against WSU's defense, though in terms of yardage and all that, the Huskies have improved a little the past few weeks (Oregon State is so bad that I don't know if you can really take anything from that game, but they did move it pretty well against Utah and Arizona State, despite losing to both of those teams). But I could also see WSU struggling a little bit against UW's defense, especially if the Huskies can pressure Falk/Bender the way they got after Falk last year. That'll be a big key for WSU without Joe Dahl (and maybe Riley Sorenson). If the Cougars keep the pocket clean, they'll be in business. If not, and if Bender is playing quarterback, I could see UW's pressure resulting in a few youthful mistakes (which WSU will obviously hope to force out of Jake Browning and UW's inconsistent offensive line, as well).
"I don't know, man. I think this could be a really, really fun matchup, though it loses some shine -- not a ton, but some -- if Falk can't play. I'll withhold my pick for now, other than to note that UW opened as a 5.5-point favorite, and I don't quite know what to do with that point spread just yet."
Huge thanks to Christian for giving us great insights on Washington (and the Cougs during his time at the Spokesman). You can follow Christian on twitter here. And be sure to catch all of his Apple Cup coverage over at the News Tribune here.