Happy Cougar Football Black Friday! It's Apple Cup Day! Hooray!
The Washington State Cougars have traveled to Seattle to take on the Washington Huskies in their annual rivalry game, taking place at Husky Stadium this year. Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on Fox.
You might be looking for some last-minute knowledge about WSU's opponent. We got in touch with our friendly SB Nation rivals UW Dawg Pound and asked Kirk DeGrasse a few questions. Here are his answers.
CougCenter: Since I presume having just five wins heading into the Apple Cup isn’t the way you drew it up, how disappointing has this season been relative to expectations?
UWDP: Depends which Husky fans you talk to. Most of us figured this year would be a step back from last season, and while nearly all of us thought the Vegas lines setting the win total at 4.5 was too low, 6 wins was the general consensus, and Washington can still reach that total.
That said, the Huskies have been victims in a way of the unexpected level of success of their defense. With that group actually getting better after seeing three 1st round picks and one 2nd round pick leave for the NFL and keeping them in every game (save Stanford) has meant some folks felt disappointed that the offense wasn’t good enough to pull out wins in more of those close games (Cal, Oregon, Utah and ASU being prime examples) and that the team has under-achieved.
CougCenter: How pleased are you with the progress Jake Browning has made this year?
UWDP: Very. He’s a much better QB right now than when he took his first snap at Boise State. Browning is never a guy that’s going to wow you with his physical attributes. He’s not particularly big, has average arm strength and isn’t a dynamic runner. His game is built on his accuracy, anticipation and ability to make the right reads and audibles. Save perhaps the accuracy part, those are things that should improve with experience, and that’s what we’ve seen.
One notable improvement is his pocket awareness. At Folsom H.S. his line was outstanding and he rarely had to deal with pass rushes disrupting his timing. He’s had to learn this season how to step up in the pocket, to build in that internal timer and he’s shown a surprising ability to scramble out of pressure to buy time or pick up yards with his legs.
He also looks more comfortable with the offense, and the success of the run game provides him opportunities to leverage that with RPO plays that take advantage of linebackers that crash the line expecting Gaskin to carry the ball.
He still needs some work on his long passes - he’s had a number of open receivers downfield and has been off-target - but in the short and intermediate game he can be very dangerous.
CougCenter: Myles Gaskin has been tremendous since taking over as the primary running back. For our fans who haven’t seen him, tell them why they’re probably going to be really, really annoyed with him on Friday.
UWDP: Gaskin isn’t a big guy - he’s right around 5’9", and while he’s solidly-built for a true frosh, he’s not a bowling ball (yet) like a Maurice Jones-Drew. And though he’s quick and reasonably fast, he’s not an elite burner either. What makes him so good is his patience and vision: he shows a very advanced feel for settling in behind his blockers and waiting for a crease to open up, and he has the quickness to burst through that opening. He also runs with surprising toughness - he’s not typically going down on first contact.
CougCenter: This is the first time Washington has seen anything like WSU’s offense this year. The UW defense is obviously outstanding, but is it well equipped to handle the unique challenge the Air Raid presents?
UWDP: Cal’s offense is probably the closest thing they’ve seen so far this year, and the Bears certainly stressed the defense between Goff making some terrific throws and the Husky defense missing a lot of tackles against Enwere. Most of these guys saw action in last year’s Apple Cup, so the Air Raid won’t be entirely novel for them.
That said, a big reason why the Husky defense was able to contain the Cougars last year was the tremendous pressure they were able to generate rushing just four and dropping seven into coverage. Between Hau’oli Kikaha, Andrew Hudson and Danny Shelton, the UW defense rarely needed to blitz to get pressure on Falk. This defense does not have that kind of pass-rushing ability.
I’ve mentioned it on our boards, but the status of Elijah Qualls and Travis Feeney will have a big impact on the chances of the defense slowing down WSU. Qualls is a much better pass-rusher than Greg Gaines, and Feeney is the best pass rusher off the edge and someone that won’t embarrass himself in underneath zone coverage.
What should give this defense a chance at success is they have generally been very good at tackling in space and not blowing assignments. They also have a relatively deep group of starting-quality defensive backs. Having a FS with the kind of range that Budda Baker possesses is always a plus, but particularly so against a prolific passing attack.
CougCenter: Washington has been one of the very best teams in the country at preventing touchdowns in the red zone. What has made the Huskies so good down there?
UWDP: I wish I had a great answer on this one that didn’t rely on cliches like "buckling down" or something similar, but I don’t. Every defense obviously gets the advantage of having less ground to cover the closer you get to your own goal line, but that doesn’t explain why Washington has been better at it than most.
One answer could come from looking at how much better the Huskies are on 1st and 2nd down than on 3rd down (10th & 11th vs. 32nd per S&P) and theorizing that something about getting inside the red zone is benefitting the UW pass defense, and so drives that might be extended outside the red zone are instead bogging down on 3rd and long inside the red zone.
CougCenter: Do you expect a great, pro-UW crowd for this one, or are you bracing for a larger than normal Cougar contingent?
UWDP: Given that A) attendance has been down in general this season, B) it’s an inconvenient date for the game being the day after Thanksgiving and C) the Cougars are enjoying their best season since 2003, I’d bet good money that the Crimson & Gray will be more heavily represented in the stands than normal this year. The Husky faithful can still get very loud, but AD Scott Woodward needs to take a long, hard look at the attendance issue and potentially make some difficult decisions about lowering prices and figuring out other ways to increase fan involvement and excitement.
Thanks again to Kirk. If you'd like to read my answers to his questions, you can do so here.