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Pre Snap Read: The Apple Cup

The Pac-12 North and potentially a playoff spot are on the line, just not for the team everyone thought heading into the season.

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NCAA Football: Arizona State at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars aren’t supposed to be here.

Games were to be played this season, sure, and Wazzu would only be playing in games that mattered to Cougs. No one else should care. Maybe they’d get to a bowl, but probably not, according to most people that write about the sport.

There’d be a nationally inconsequential fall played out on the Palouse and when the sun set on the season, WSU would — at best — be expected to slide into the role of spoiler for their cross-state rival. And probably face plant at trying to do even that.

Whatever team that was supposed to be isn’t the one wearing Crimson and Gray on the field this season.

Washington State was granted every excuse to not be any good. The Cougs’ past offseason consisted of:

  • Mike Leach all but moving to Knoxville, creating a cascade of near-unprecedented turnover with his assistants;
  • their rising star defensive coordinator bolting to be a higher paid de facto back-up to Greg Schiano at The Ohio State;
  • the strength coach moving up to the Chicago Bears;
  • the top two receivers from last season leaving the program;
  • and what shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath but has to be said somewhere — the tragic suicide of presumed starting quarterback Tyler Hilinski.

There’s enough adversity there to justify a mediocre season. Rather, there was enough adversity there to forge an incredibly strong team with an unshakable belief in one another.

That’s the team Coug fans see every game. They don’t flinch. They won’t flinch. And they’ve found a way go on this run while having more fun than anyone in the nation.

The Apple Cup pits two teams with two very different energies currently surrounding their programs. It’s intangible and hardly qualitative but you can feel it. One team is living completely in the moment — translating fun into momentum, escalating individual plays into series into games.

The other is battling against minor setbacks, moments of disappointment, fighting every week to get back what was awarded them in the preseason, to get what they think they deserve. Grasping at what they should’ve been.

The Cougs are playing fast and loose. You can see that in how they play the game, in their celebrations, post-game interviews, and on the sideline during games. In Martin Stadium, you can feel the acceleration when they hit the gas pedal. The Moment doesn’t rattle them.

Washington State is a team playing with house money, and a mustachioed graduate transfer with a bottle of Crown tucked into his waistband is calling all the shots, wearing nothing but aviators and a jock strap. He has nothing to lose. Neither do they. Sometimes you’ve gotta have a little bit of ‘screw it.’

That is so on-brand Wazzu that the script would get rejected.

The Apple Cup is a game of contrasts in that way. Washington is the team that’s been visibly tight, the Huskies are the ones that were supposed to be here. Not us Cougs.

The Washington Huskies offense has been inconsistent at its best, oscillating somewhere between unstoppable — with Myles Gaskin motoring through defenses with ease and Aaron Fuller (40 percent of passing targets) wide open downfield — and looking wholly dysfunctional.

Washington v Colorado
Gaskin and Fuller.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

S&P+ has a post-game evaluation metric called “Percentile Performance”, which takes into account the opponent and all the stats that occurred, then spits out that value into a bell curve. Washington’s offense has only been over 50% five times all season (WSU has been over 70% nine times this year), and their 62% performance against Oregon State last week was the first time they eclipsed that mark since Week Five.

Offensively, the Huskies thrive when they get positive first down yardage and stay ahead of the sticks, chewing up yardage until the next inevitable big play comes. They motion and formation adjust at the line to get a box-count advantage in the run game, which is primarily stretch zone and counter, with a TE pulling back across formation. That also forms the foundation for most of their play-action pass game.

Their success rate drops off dramatically from 9th to 77th moving from 3rd-and-medium to 3rd-and-long due to some occasionally sketchy play at quarterback. Jake Browning has all the same deficiencies we’ve seen in him for years, but doesn’t get bailed out nearly as often by his teammates as he did in previous seasons.

If you really want to read someone torch Browning, here’s an NFL scouting report from August. Most of those criticisms are unabashedly harsh but also fairly true. The best way to disrupt the Washington offense is to force long down-and-distance scenarios and bring heat. Browning has the tendency to get a little frantic with pressure. Wazzu is 6th nationally in passing down sack rate and Washington’s offense is 105th nationally in that metric.

This is a team with a very hot and cold offense that is buoyed by a Top 10 defense.

Washington’s defense is co-coordinated by Jimmy Lake (DBs) and Pete Kwiatkowski (OLBs). They run what’s on paper a 2-4-5 but what is in practice a base Nickel 4-2-5. That’s basically semantics in what you call edge rushers and occasionally they’ll fly to the flat in their Cover 3 or 4 scheme, justifying a linebacker designation.

More and more this season, especially against pass heavy offenses — like Stanford (?!), the only team to attempt more than 40 passes against them — they’ve gone to playing a real deep Two-Man. This is man coverage underneath with two high safeties. The Huskies aren’t afraid to start their safeties 15+ yards off the ball and they’re good enough to close on anything crossing in the intermediate. Those deep sets notch UW at No. 2 nationally in preventing explosive plays (“Passing marginal explosiveness”).

From 2017 season. It’s the same stuff.

Expect them to switch between Two-Man & Cover 4, and Man-Free & Cover 3, disguising either zone coverage with the safety count and box pressure. The net-net of all this — the match-up with Max Borghi and James Williams out of the backfield against UW’s great senior linebackers Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett could be huge for short-yardage and red zone plays, while Dezmon Patmon, Easop Winston, and Tay Martin could see a few one-on-one’s with a pair of very good corners, and the main show to watch could be Jamire Calvin against Taylor Rapp at safety in the middle of the field.

What they aren’t good at is getting to the quarterback. The Huskies rank 118th and 88th in standard down and passing down sack rates, respectively. They rank 10th in the PAC-12 with just 17 sacks on the season (WSU’s defense has 34).

Two defensive backs — Myles Bryant (3) and Rapp (4) — lead their team in sacks. From that Two-Man look, they’ll roll the boundary safety to the middle of the field playing Cover 1 (Man-Free) and blitz the field safety. Or roll the safety to the flat and blitz the corner (Bryant). They do this pretty frequently, specifically in the middle of the field with the ball on the right hash. That should be an automatic quick slant to the backside but don’t be surprised if WSU gets aggressive and goes vertical against it with a one-on-one outside.

How I see the game playing out

Of note, it’s November in Pullman and the weather is supposed to be weather. Light rain and slight wind in the afternoon will give way to an inch or two of snowfall that night. Right now, the 5:30 p.m. kick off is right at that rain/snow interface. As we saw in the Colorado game, wind can be a little tricky, but any kind of rain or snow should be manageable for the WSU offense.

After Arizona and Oregon it’s hard to imagine anything other than a lightening bolt first half. This one, however, figures to be a mostly back and forth field position affair through the first handful of possessions, with each side getting a couple scores and a few timely stops. WSU will have to pitch through a couple bad series and rely on the defense to stand tall.

The third quarter will happen, the only quarter this season in which WSU is averaging less than a touchdown.

Then the WSU offense gets there’s in the fourth. Wazzu is 3rd nationally in average fourth quarter points (12.0) and UW is fourth from last (3.3). The Huskies average less than eight points a game in the second half and Gardner Minshew is lights out in the fourth quarter;

The Cougs’ quick scoring puts pressure on Browning to keep pace with the pass game and the Speed D front doesn’t ever let him get comfortable.

Final Score: WSU 31 - 24 UW

Hope you all have a great Thanksgiving and I’ll see you in Martin. Go Cougs!