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Interactive Graphic: UW’s defense is only pretty scary this year instead of utterly terrifying

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A lack of pressure on the QB has led to a big drop in interceptions.

Washington v California Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

I have this reoccurring nightmare where it’s deep into a semester and I’ve just walked in to a 400 level class in Murrow and upon entering through the door I realize that I have not attended a single class since syllabus week, our big class project is due that day, and I have done literally nothing on it. The professor looks over surprised to see me, and as I try to formulate excuses my mouth moves in slow motion and I can’t form words.

The stress of this dream is far worse than being chased by zombies or villains, but is on par with what it’s felt like watching the Washington State Cougars play against the Washington Huskies defense these last few seasons. It’s like Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski have the microphone at a karaoke bar and are singing Alice Cooper’s “Welcome To My Nightmare” over and over and over again. I think this year could be the year the nightmare finally ends.

UW is still really good, so this is no easy task for the Cougar offense, but they’re not full-of-first-and-second-round-NFL draft-picks good (their secondary probably has a few of those, they just aren’t playing at that level as a unit this year). Since 2015 the Huskies have had 7 players on defense get drafted in the first two rounds, and those players always seemed to play a huge role in two massive buggaboo’s for WSU in the Apple Cup: sacks and turnovers.

Since 2015 WSU has averaged 1.47 turnovers a game against all other opponents not wearing Purple, but against UW, they average five. However, while it seems like every Apple Cup has a moment where the roof just caves in on WSU, this year’s version of the Huskies don’t have the same sticky hands as their predecessors.

The below chart looks at how many possessions a game a defense faces and what percentage of those possessions result in a takeaway. It has data going back to 2010, but the chart is looking at 2016-2018. UW was second in the nation in 2016 in taking the ball away but has dropped to 82nd in 2018, tucked right near Wyoming and Stanford.

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

Turnovers can, at times, be random, especially recovering fumbles. However, UW’s troubles in getting takeaways this season has come from the drop-off they’ve seen in interceptions (they have eight fumble recoveries this season vs nine in 2017). They rank 10th in the Pac-12 in pass attempts per interception, getting a pick every 59 pass attempts. They were at 23 and 24 pass attempts per interception in 2016 and 2017. What could be causing such a big jump?

I think the struggles in taking the ball away via the pass are coming from their inability to get pressure on the QB. Washington is 106th in the nation in sacks this year. They’ve gone from sacking the QB every 11 pass attempts in 2017 to every 22 in 2018. UW constantly harassed Luke Falk last season, sacking him 5 times. It’s going to be really interesting to see how the Huskies approach Andre Dillard and the Cougar offensive line as they try to get after Gardner Minshew II because the Cougs are currently best in the nation in protecting the passer, giving up a sack just once every 66 attempts.

The below chart looks at UW’s 2018 struggles in pass attempts per sack. If you hover over a logo it will give more detail and you can swap out other stats to see how they compare this year to prior iterations. Word to the wise, just avoid selecting “Points Per Game.”

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

It’s easy to say this as a guy sitting on a couch who doesn’t have large men chasing me for 60 minutes (except in those above mentioned nightmares), but the Cougs looked intimidated the last three Apple Cups. Early on in every game it felt like UW would get a big takeaway or hit and they played as though losing to WSU meant they would befall some terrible fate, like having to listen to their defensive coordinator sing karaoke all night.

But as Jeff Nusser said on Monday, these Cougs keep showing up. Teams follow their QB and Minshew does not seem to be intimated by anyone on the football field. He just is not fazed. UW’s defense is still really good, but they’re struggling to hurt teams where they’ve traditionally hurt the Cougs and I think that opens the door for some Cougar dreams and hopefully a wild party in Pullman on Friday night.