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Pre-Snap Read: 2016 Apple Cup

Here’s how WSU and UW will try to attack each other, as the Cougs and Huskies play for the Pac-12 North title.

USC v Washington Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It is the last game of the regular season and Washington State is in control of its own destiny. Win and you get a shot at the Rose Bowl in the PAC-12 Championship Game. Lose and you could fall as far as El Paso in the bowl selection pecking order, depending on how the rest of the conference rankings shake out.

It’s a rivalry, so throw the records out the window.

We know better. We also don’t care.

Go Cougs, Whatever
Brian Anderson - CougCenter

Washington leads the all-time series 70-32-6. The longest winning streak WSU has ever had has been two games.

There have been 34 Apple Cup games since we’ve had reliable tracking of the betting history (1982). UW has been favored in all but seven of them and has won 22 (67 percent). WSU only won three times out of the seven years it was favored going into the game. Their average margin of victory in their 12 wins since 1982? 6.6 points. UW’s average? 17.1.

The only way this series is close to even is if you look at against the spread performance, where WSU has covered 15 times and UW 19 times.

Whenever WSU wins, they find the narrowest of ways to pull it out. Half of the other times are scores you’d rather not commit to memory, but do. Because you care and because the other side of the state doesn’t let you forget.

Like Kyle Sherwood points out, this game is the trump card your back pocket needs. All-time streak? That means nothing; WE knocked YOU out of the playoffs. WE won the time it really mattered.

Little brother crushed your dreams like a Busch Light can in the RV lot across the street and got to the PAC-12 Conference Championship before you and your metropolitan purple hype machine.

When No. 23 Washington State (8-3 overall, 7-1 Pac-12) welcomes No. 5 Washington (10-1, 7-1) onto the rolling hills of the Palouse this Friday, it will be to play for the PAC-12 North title. A shot at the Rose Bowl is on the line. A potential College Football Playoff spot for UW is on the line. The biggest bragging rights trump card you could hope to own, is on the line.

This is the most important, biggest game in recent history and you get to play it against your rivals. Friday is what makes college football so great.

And why the good lord invented beer.

Washington went from pundit dark horse playoff pick in the pre-season to serious contender after running roughshod on their non-conference slate, outscoring Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State 148 - 30.

Arizona — weirdly — gave them a challenge in Tucson that required overtime before UW went on another dominating three game streak, where they dismantled Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State by a combined score of 155 - 44.

A narrow win at Utah that required some special teams magic and a loss to a USC team that suddenly remembered they’re USC, plus a couple blowout wins over Cal and ASU round out the Husky season.

They’ve been remarkably consistent, for a college football team, with only a couple games -- and really only a couple quarters outside of that — where they’ve under-performed. Chris Petersen has Washington in a place that deserves all the hype they’re getting.

And it’s built on defense.

Like last year, the Huskies will predominantly show a 4-2-5 defense that can easily transition to a 4-3 or 3-4.

What makes them excellent is how well their corners play quarters coverage, which is really about as well as any team in the country.

They will disguise things with coverage, but don’t make any real effort to conceal their eyes. UW will mix which side of the field they decide to play man coverage against, bringing both corners up to give a press look.

At the snap, one or both will either fly their hips and bail deep into a quarters drop, or bump and run in press-man. Pay attention to their heads. The side playing zone almost always has their eyes in the backfield and the man-coverage side will have eyes on their defender.

The above grab shows how they rotate into more of a Cover 3 in the secondary against Oregon State’s 2-by-2 offensive formation, deep in their own territory. The free safety — barely in screen and nearly 20 yards off the line of scrimmage — ball hawks, reading the quarterback’s eyes.

Here is a more traditional Cover 4 look from them against Utah.

Utah set up in a slot right formation, with the tight end on the right side of the formation and twin receivers to the left. The UW corner to the right crashed at the snap, feinting a blitz and is trying to recover seeing the TE stretch vertical. The inside backer to that side plays the TE underneath.

To the left, the Utes run a basic crossing pattern at the sticks.

This grab really shows the safeties coverage drops, both open inside and drop vertically on their respective hashes, trusting the corners completely to take care of the sideline and focusing more on the middle of the field.

Route combinations that will work best against this coverage attack the underneath zones, in front of a bailing secondary and between or behind dropping backers. Specifically targeting the outside backer responsible for the flat with 618 Y-Option and Y-Stick, which also have a backside dig route from H that can find a hole. You can live off these option and curl routes as long as receivers are making plays to gain yardage after that catch.

Another good option are digs from outside receivers like you get on the backside from Sail (94) and Cross (95) series route combinations.

Facing trips, UW likes to roll into press coverage, manning up everyone and keeping a free safety back deep off the ball. That makes things ultra simple; beat your man.

Offensively, UW doesn’t do a whole lot differently than they did last year. They really like running out of a slot formation, with a wide receiver bunched in tight with the lineman, and are a huge counter run team.

They’ll pull guards across formation and even began pulling the center with them on power sweeps to the strong side this year. Browning favors drilling a backside post with play action and a pulling guard to the strong side. They run both an intermediate slant version, and a big play post/go route version (that also includes a flea-flicker wrinkle cause that’s Chris Petersen).

Here’s a look at a post play that went for 51 yards against Oregon State.

Brian Anderson - CougCenter

OSU shows a typical combo coverage in a 4-2-5 base that WSU plays. Both sides obtain a 3-on-2 numbers advantage. The secondary pattern matches, with players reading the No. 2 (inside) receiver.

To the top; the OLB man covers the No. 2 receiver on any in- or out-breaking route less than seven or so yards. If No. 2 breaks, the corner man-covers No. 1. Those same rules apply to the bottom half (corner and safety this time), but we see it flipped. No. 2 goes vertical so the safety has him manned, which means the corner takes No. 1. The OLB to the bottom walls No. 2 from any slant or dig inside to 10 yards, then sits in a hook-to-curl zone, looking to rob underneath a route over top of him.

John Ross is the outside receiver to the bottom. The breaks on his route are about 10 yards further than the screen grab would allow. The corner has no chance and the free safety to the boundary misses a tackle on a simple 5-step drop.

Yes, John Ross is fast enough to stretch a post nearly 20 yards before breaking on a 5-step drop. His speed is insane.

The only team that has really shut him down was USC, who stuck a man on him the entire game. They’re the only team in the conference, possibly the country, with an athlete like Adoree Jackson who is capable of doing that and he still got got.

Wazzu did a decent job limiting Colorado’s big play receiver Shay Fields last week to 31 yards on three receptions...albeit giving up 121 yards to Devin Ross. They’ll have to find a way to duplicate that effort against John Ross this Friday, while not allowing an equally capable Dante Pettis to roam free.

What has me concerned about the Washington Huskies

How ‘bout them apples: With the exception of a crazy fourth quarter and overtime in 2012, WSU has done one thing fairly consistently under Mike Leach: Not show up for the first or last game of the regular season. Some might suggest the rivalry gets in their heads a lot more than "just another game" would, or that injuries have plagued the Cougs in a long stretch of Apple Cups. Whatever it is, it’s been a bit of a problem. And not just a recent one either (see graph above).

Pass Defense: UW’s defense is legit, Sidney Jones and Kevin King are two of the best cover corners in the conference. The Huskies rank 11th in defensive S&P+, one spot better than the Colorado team that held WSU to 24 points last week. They rank 5th in yards per pass completion allowed (10.3 yards) and give up less than 200 passing yards per game. They are second nationally at limiting pass play explosives, 14th at defending passing success rate, and 11th in overall pass defense S&P+.

They average over one interception a game and are third nationally at passing down sack rate, hitting home on over 15 percent of opponent drop backs.

John Ross: Ross has turned himself from an Orlando Jones in The Replacements style speedster into a bonafide route-runner this season. He has decent hands — 67 percent catch rate — and is The Guy that makes the Husky offense potent. Ross averages 15.5 yards per catch and is targeted on just over 31 percent of pass attempts. He leads the conference in touchdowns (15) and is tied for the lead with nine receptions over 30 yards.

Weather: Forecast is for 41 degrees, rain, and 15 mph winds during the game. That is not exactly ideal throwing conditions. It’s also not out of the question the late Saturday predicted snow/rain mixture arrives a little early.

What I’m confident in about the Cougs

Home sweet home: WSU has been drastically better at home than on the road this season. I’ve personally been in three games where I thought the atmosphere in Martin reached a massive game-impacting decibel level; for about 10 seconds of 2004 Dad’s weekend against USC, the 2012 Apple Cup (the loudest I’ve ever heard it), and the 2014 home game against Oregon.

Word from students is that there’s a buzz around this game like nothing they’ve experienced before. Expect a large and rowdy turnout for this one. Pullman hasn’t had a game like this in a long time and fans are ready to light the powder keg.

Falk: Luke wasn’t really into the swing of things his first Apple Cup, having just made his first career start a couple games earlier, and was injured for last year’s. Washington hasn’t faced Falk at his best, which presents a different challenge than other conference quarterbacks to that defense.

His best is among the best in college football and he’s coming off a game that featured some real uncharacteristic drops where he completed less than 50 percent of his attempts. I’d expect a huge bounce-back from No. 4.

BOOBIE. MORROW. WICKS.: The WSU backfield averaged 7.8 yards per carry against the Buffaloes, after they had a ridiculous set of games against Cal and Arizona. If UW gets aggressive with their linebackers, there are cut-back lanes to run on them and WSU finally has the backs that can hit them. Previous games against Petersen’s Huskies utilized running back on linebacker match-ups in the pass game, and I’d suspect we see a lot of that again.

Jamal Morrow is over 10 yards per catch with a near 90 percent catch rate and five TD receptions. James Williams remains one of the most electric ball-carriers we’ve seen on the Palouse in a while, averaging 6.2 yards per carry with six TDs on the season. Gerard Wicks is nearly unstoppable in the power run game, where WSU ranks third nationally in Power Success Rate and first nationally in Stuff Rate.

These three backs will test just how well UW thinks it can tackle.

Pressure: All of it is on the Visitor side. WSU isn’t supposed to win. They aren’t supposed to contend for Rose Bowls. They certainly weren’t supposed to be in contention for the PAC-12 Championship during the last week of the season after losing to an FCS team during the first.

They have every reason to play fast and loose at home.

UW has been told since May they were a playoff contender. If they win out they probably will be. The only thing that stands in their way is a four hour date in terrible weather with one of the most dangerous offenses in the country, in front of 35,000 people that hate them and want to see their dreams die in a wheat field.

Unfortunates: UW is out Azeem Victor (LB) and Joe Mathis (OLB/DE), which is unfortunate cause we never root for injuries. Victor was probably the Huskies best defensive player, leading the team in tackles (57) and Mathis was their best pass rusher (5 sacks, 7.5 TFL).

How I see this game playing out

To me this game is a close repeat of what needed to happen last week against Colorado. If UW is able to run their plays at their tempo and dictate the scoring pace, WSU could end up being in some trouble. What they need to do is push scoring so that the Huskies can’t just pound Gaskin off-tackle until they feel like dropping a play action bomb.

Make them put the game in Jake Browning’s hands early. The only other game with a nasty environment he’s played in this year he went 12-of-20 for 186, a couple TDs and an INT (Utah). If WSU can fluster Browning, he’s shown to make some questionable decisions scrambling around and outside the pocket.

If the offense can push an uncomfortable pace and the defense can rattle him a few times early, the Cougs could be in a position to press them in a one possession game late into the fourth quarter, a place they’ve only been twice all season.

And seriously now, never punt or kick the ball in bounds. Special Forces have made good strides this year but don’t even try to play with that fire.

Wazzu comes out of the gate hot and jumps up by a couple scores. UW counters with a huge play that quiets some of the crowd down. Things trade off for the middle quarters before a Coug run late in the third and early in the fourth allows them some distance.

A late pick or fumble of Browning seals it.

Final Score: WSU 34 - 31 UW

Thanks for reading throughout the season. Enjoy the hell out of this Apple Cup, we don’t get many like it.

Go Cougs!

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Washington State [Grilled Salmon BLT: salmon, bacon, butter lettuce, heirloom tomato, pickled cherries, mayo, nine-grain bread]