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Interactive Graphic: WSU’s TD machine is giving me hope in the Apple Cup

Very few teams get into the end zone at a higher rate than the Cougs.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve got a daily reminder on my phone for Apple Cup week that goes off in the morning saying, “whatever you do, don’t get excited about the Cougs’ chances.” It’s only Monday, and I’m really struggling to listen to my own advice. This is the first time in a few years where the numbers are trending in the direction of my heart. Buckle up, I think this Apple Cup is going to be a wild ride.

This is the third year in a row that the Pac-12 North division title is on the line, and it’s the first time in those three seasons where WSU is facing just a really good UW team rather than a fantastic UW team. The main area that has the confidence creeping in is how great Gardner Minshew II and the Cougar offense is at converting possessions into touchdowns, and how much the Jake Browning-led Huskies have struggled to do the same in 2018. In terms Bill Connelly's “Finishing Drives” statistic — how many points do you get once you cross your opponent’s 40 yard line? — the Cougs are 10th in the country, while UW is 93rd.

The below chart looks at how many possessions per game a team gets and what % of those possessions result in a touchdown for 2016-2018. I like this stat because it shows how much pressure an offense puts on their opposition and if the game is about scoring points, it’s worthwhile to look at how often an offense gets 6.

UW’s gone from looking like this year’s West Virginia, in 2016, to being on par with Coastal Carolina, Navy and Virginia in how often they get touchdowns in 2018, with 32% of their possessions resulting in a touchdown (54th nationally). They also are turning the ball over way more than usual for a Chris Petersen-led team, going from 5th in 2017 to 52nd in percentage of possessions that result in a turnover (7.4% to 11%).

Conversely, the Cougs have been touchdown machines this year. They already have more trips inside the red zone at this point in 2018 than they did in all of 2017. James Williams and Max Borghi lead the way with 25 touchdowns between them and the Cougs have scored 60 touchdowns thus far in 2018 (they only had 48 last year). That has WSU 5th nationally in percentage of possessions resulting in a touchdown, getting a touchdown 46% of the time.

If you’re on mobile tilt your phone horizontally; if you’re on Apple News or Google AMP, click this link to open the chart in a new tab and return to the story.

To think that it’s almost a coin flip that WSU will score a touchdown every time they have the ball is wild to me. Mike Leach has his offense performing on par with Georgia, UCF, Clemson and Ohio State in scoring.

The general vibe from the fan base is that this team just feels different, that they’re not afraid of anyone, especially UW. The Huskies are formidable on defense, but I’ll be digging into some of their troubles later this week. This game is strength on strength — UW is 12th on defense in points per scoring opportunity, WSU is 10th on offense. Gardner is feeding his running backs when the defense takes away the usual Air Raid magic that Dezmon Patmon and company deploy. It’s going to It’s going to be tight, but this team seems free and they’ve been converting big moments into 6 points.

Time to go update that reminder to alert me twice a day to not get too excited about our chances this Friday.