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Pre-Snap Read: The Apple Cup

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Can the Cougs finally break through?

Washington v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

The University of Washington opens the doors to what they like to think is the “Greatest Setting” in college football today and welcome in the highest ranked team in the state. The Huskies assume the unusual role of spoiler; the Washington State Cougars advance to the Pac-12 Championship Game and a rematch with USC if they can win the Apple Cup. The game kicks off at 5 PM PST on FOX.

The Huskies got all they could handle from Utah last weekend, taking advantage of a peculiar timeout by Kyle Whittingham in the final moments of a tie ball game to tally 10 points in the last minute and pull out a win.

Wazzu spent the last couple weeks getting happy and healthy during their bye, after eleven consecutive weeks of football games.

For the second consecutive year the Apple Cup decides the North. Let’s ride.


Pete Kwiatkowski came to Washington from Boise State with head coach Chris Petersen and has reloaded top tier defenses annually, regardless of attrition. The Huskies tout the 3rd best defense according to S&P+, the 5th best in terms of points per game, and have only surrendered more than two touchdowns in three games all year.

What the Huskies do defensively on the back end isn’t terribly complex. They’ll primarily look like a 3-4 or 4-2-5 team, mixing Cover 4 (Quarters) with Cover 3 and Cover 1, relying on strong play by athletic corners.

Rather than playing off, the corners tend to get right at the line of scrimmage and make receivers earn every inch of separation. Facing passing downs — long down-and-distance scenarios — the Huskies have favored rolling into a man coverage with a single high safety, who plays nearly 20 yards off the ball.

Utah and Stanford both exploited the linebacker on the inside receiver or running back match-up against UW when they went into their Cover 1, with both teams finding space in the middle of the field.

Expect a similar tactic from the Cougs. The battle to watch will be Jamire Calvin and Renard Bell working the middle of the field. The Huskies’ strength is along the perimeter of the defense, they take away the sideline really well so move away from that, and watch for Calvin and Bell hitting Cross and Seam routes behind the backers.


What has me concerned about the Washington Huskies

Tradition: It’s no secret that UW dominates the all-time series record. WSU would have to win the Apple Cup every year for almost 40 years before the series got even. That’s not the tradition we’re talking about though. Mike Leach hasn’t beat Chris Petersen at UW and the last three games have been...disheartening. Wazzu hasn’t shown up for an Apple Cup for years now, and laid an egg at home when the stakes mattered most last season.

Washington State v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Road Falk: In a strange twist, Luke Falk and the Cougs quit being a traveling team this season. Falk’s completion percentage drops from 71 percent to 59 percent on the road and his yards per attempt drop from 7.5 to 5.5 — which is massive. Wazzu, and especially Falk, haven’t put together a solid road performance since going to Autzen.

Defense: The Huskies are good defensively — there’s no need to beat around the bush. They rank highly in just about every statistical category and the defensive line, in particular, is nasty.

NEVERPUNT: The Pre-Snap Read is staunchly Team Neverpunt, but especially don’t punt to Dante Pettis. Eric Mele could be fired for cause if Wazzu’s Special Forces give Pettis a chance at a return at any point in this game. Just say no.

Former Washington State beat writer for the Spokesman-Review, Christian Caple! was kind enough to answer some of our questions even though he’s just a regular citizen now

What are you most confident in about the Washington Huskies?

“The kicking game.

“No, just kidding. In general, I would say the defensive line, and Vita Vea and Greg Gaines more specifically. It's true that UW has been successful under Chris Petersen against the Air Raid due to the remarkable talent they've had in the defensive backfield, but they've also been able to generate a pretty consistent pass rush to make Luke Falk (and Peyton Bender, that one time, but we won't talk about that) uncomfortable. That's going to be as important as ever on Saturday. The Huskies are a little banged up, and that defense has looked closer to mortal the past couple weeks than it has for any two-week stretch in maybe the past three seasons. But Vita Vea is still Vita Vea, Greg Gaines is still Greg Gaines, and those two guys are still capable of forcing Falk into a few bad decisions.”

NCAA Football: Washington at Stanford Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

How has UW convinced teams punting to Dante Pettis is still a good idea?

“I think the biggest reason is that it's just a lot harder to punt away from someone than it seems. You need an experienced, accurate punter with a big enough leg to get the ball out of bounds without losing too much distance, and there just aren't a whole lot of those playing college football.

“Also -- and this shouldn't diminish Pettis' accomplishments, because he is truly elite as a returner and a joy to watch -- three of Pettis' nine career punt-return touchdowns came against teams that finished the season with 10 losses. Another three came against Montana, Fresno State and a not-quite-as-bad-as-last-season-but-still-not-good Rutgers team. So, that helped. But yeah, if Saturday's game ends up being a slugfest, a Pettis punt-return TD could really be a game-changer.”

What has me confident in the Cougs

Defense: Wazzu has the chance at going to the conference championship game purely because of the defense, just like everyone thought before the season. 22.7 percent of opponent plays end in a tackle for loss, turnover, or sack. That leads the nation. They’re ranked 8th in rushing S&P+ and 5th in stuff rate, dropping opposing running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage on 27 percent of all rush attempts.

We asked Christian; How will Myles Gaskin be different for WSU’s defense than Royce Freeman, Bryce Love, or Phillip Lindsey?

“You forgot JJ Taylor!

“But yeah, that's a good question. I will say that having a No. 2 back like Lavon Coleman should help, because it means Gaskin won't have to carry the load himself. But the game will probably come down to whether the Huskies can, indeed, solve what Stanford, Oregon and Colorado couldn't with their star backs.”

Not Russell Wilson: Jake Browning has a tendency to scramble around like you do while playing the Madden video game. Only he’s not exceptionally fast and definitely not fast enough to rely on it bailing him out of a bad situation. That ill-advised “creativity” will lead to at least one back-breaking play.

NCAA Football: Utah at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Does Jake Browning’s Fran Tarkenton impression have a shot at not leading to a devastating sack?

“The problem is that, yes, every fourth or fifth attempt seems to yield a positive result, like a 7-footer banking in his first 3-point attempt of the game and then hucking another eight that clank off the back iron. I wonder if Petersen would prefer he just never have any success scrambling backward. Then, maybe Browning wouldn't be so inclined to try it. I do think he's more capable of keeping a play alive with his legs than most people think, but he could certainly get a lot better at picking his spots.”

Bell and Calvin: Quite possibly the most important match-up on the field when WSU has the ball. Both of them have potential for huge days against UW linebackers and with how good the Husky corners are, they could end up being the main deep threat for the Cougs.

#collegekickers: In what will probably be a close game, kickers all of a sudden become really really important. Wazzu has a Lou Groza Award semi-finalist and UW has a guy that may or may not be battling the yips.

So, Christian...

What about Wazzu should concern the Huskies the most?

“The kicking game.

“No, just kidding (but only a little). WSU's defense is absolutely of most concern for the Huskies right now, due in part to how inconsistent UW's offense has played this season, particularly in the passing game. I'm not as down on Jake Browning as a lot of folks seem to be, because he's down three receivers and a stud left tackle, but the fact remains that he still runs backwards and loses a bunch of yards far too often, and that sure doesn't seem like a winning philosophy against that Hercules fellow and his friends. If the Huskies can't run the ball consistently -- and few teams have against WSU this season -- it could be a long night for their offense.”

How I see the game playing out

Vegas opened with the Cougs as 10 point underdogs and that hasn’t changed much throughout the week. At one point during the week something close to ninety percent of the betting public had went with the Wazzu side. With an over/under set at 50, Vegas sees the Cougs losing 30-20.

Bill Connelly has almost the exact same line, with UW winning 29.8-19.4.

I don’t see either offense being able to accomplish much against the defense. Points will be hard to come by in a one-possession game that goes back and forth all evening. WSU has the firepower on offense to roast the Huskies for a few big plays that could be the difference, especially if the Coug defense can shut down Myles Gaskin.

Final Score: WSU 26 - 24 UW

And Mr. Caple?

“I expect it to be relatively low-scoring. Just don't see either of these defenses giving up a ton of points. I think I called it 24-20 for UW earlier this week, so I'll stick with that. I need to see Falk and Mike Leach figure out that UW defense before I can believe they will win at Husky Stadium (though I do think they're in a better position to do that this season than at any point during Leach's tenure).”


BONUS QUESTIONS!

Why does Husky Stadium not have a designated visitor’s section like every other school in the conference?

“It does: sections 101 and 301, which is the corner above the visitor's locker room. UW allots a designated number of tickets in these sections to each visiting team, with the number varying by opponent. Tickets in the visitor's section must be purchased through the ticket office of the visiting team.”

What do you miss most about the WSU beat?

“I hope this makes sense: there are a number of things about covering WSU that I really enjoyed, but nothing that I actually miss (and I say the same for my time covering the Huskies), aside from the people I got to know. There were quite a few people I met during my time covering WSU who I don't see as much anymore, and wish I did. The athletics staff were great to work with and talk to, from the administration down. I appreciated the interaction with the fans via Twitter, live chats and the like. I liked eating at CD's Smoke Pit in Moscow. I really appreciate how responsive WSU is to public records requests, compared to, uh, some other public universities in this state. But I never really had a feeling of "man, I wish I were still doing this or that," or "man, I really miss this or that," with respect to the fact that every job/city/assignment has its pros and cons.

I feel the same about leaving the business altogether. I got to do a lot of really fun, cool stuff as a sports reporter, and I made a lot of memories that I'll always cherish. I truly enjoyed myself. I was lucky to cover the things I covered and meet the people I met. Some of them will be in my life forever, I suspect. Just can't really say that I "miss" the job, if that makes sense (and part of that might simply be that it's easier than ever to follow a team from the outside, and I'm still close with reporters who cover both WSU and UW). When it's time to move on, you move on, and I think a lot more about where I am and where I'm going than where I've been. (I hope I didn't just plagiarize that from a country song or something.) Is that self-indulgent enough for you?”


Huge thanks to Christian for stopping by and answering some questions for us. Enjoy the Apple Cup! Go Cougs!