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Interactive Graphic: Apple Cup breakdown

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WSU’s performance in the second half of the season could bode well for Friday.

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

I am unendingly impressed by the grit and toughness of this Washington State team, particularly this senior class. They have endured a wild ride of highs and lows throughout their entire career at WSU. When this season started off on the wrong foot and became even more drama filled as the fate of our then head coach became clear, it would have been easy to fold, to just be tired and done. This team has done the opposite.

Rather than looking at a long season on the whole, I wanted to dig into how WSU and UW are trending over the back half of the season compared to the front half. There are some exciting things afoot for our Cougars, especially when you bucket the season into weeks 1-6 and 7-12.

Virtual water cooler talking points:

  • WSU is the most improved team in the Pac-12 in the second half of the season in points per opportunity (points you score after crossing your opponent’s 40-yard line)
  • WSU is the most explosive offense in the Pac-12 in the second half of the season
  • WSU’s offense is the 3rd most improved in rushing and passing predicted points added (PPA) in the second half of the season
  • WSU’s defense is the third-most improved defense against the run in the second half of the season
  • UW’s offense is 12th in the Pac-12 in rushing PPA over in the second half of the season

The below charts look at PPA, which is collegefootballdata.com’s take on Expected Points Added. Expected Points assumes that not all yard lines are created equal. It assigns a value to each part of the field and measures the number of points that would be expected to be scored based on down, distance and field position. It’s an attempt to not only measure if a play was successful but how successful it was.

The first chart looks at Points Per Opportunity (how many points are scored once you cross your opponent’s 40-yard line) and Explosiveness, which measures how explosive a team’s successful plays are. The top set of charts ranks each team’s offense and defense in weeks 1-6 vs 7-12. The bottom chart looks at the raw difference between the first and second half of the season in that category. The goal is to look at who ranked the highest in each category and who improved or declined the most. For that bottom chart, more movement up the chart in offensive categories denotes improvement; the opposite is true for defense.

Jayden de Laura leads the Pac-12 in passing yards per game, passing touchdowns and is 3rd in yards per attempt. Watching him, Travell Harris and Calvin Jackson Jr. work the Run N’ Shoot in person last week against Arizona was incredibly fun. Jackson leads the Pac-12 in receptions of 30+ yards and has been a key piece as to why WSU has shown so much progress in breaking explosive plays. The downside is that UW’s defense is first in the Pac-12 in limiting big plays. The Cougs’ ability to convert scoring opportunities into points over the last 6 weeks bodes well for de Laura and company if UW takes away the home run pass. WSU sits 2nd in the Pac-12 and most improved over the last 6 weeks in points per opportunity. Hopefully we see a steady diet of Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh that leads to 2nd and manageable and allows some Run N Shoot magic happen for our receivers.

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The reason I’m hopeful that WSU’s offense can stay on schedule is that UW’s defense has been just OK against the run of late vs their usual brick wall of years past. The below chart looks at PPA for offense and defense; WSU is the 3rd-most improved rushing and passing attack over the last six weeks, while UW’s defense has stayed pretty consistent throughout the season, ranking 9th in rushing PPA and 1st in passing PPA over the last six weeks. What bodes especially well for WSU is that UW is last in the Pac-12 in rushing PPA over the last 6 weeks. Hopefully we see some early down success against the run and Jake Dickert can unleash Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson off the edge for a strip sack or four. If the defense can’t force turnovers, hopefully UW’s rushing struggles create some favorable field position situations for the Cougs if the defense can get off the field via a punt or turnover.

If you’re coming from twitter, Google AMP or Apple News click here to open the chart and return to the story. If you’re on mobile tilt your phone horizontally for best viewing experience.

Where WSU is surging on offense, UW’s defense has been consistent in limiting their opponents. WSU’s defense has been very OK this season, but UW’s offense has been anemic at best and is bottom of the conference in rushing PPA over the last 6 weeks. I imagine the game is going to hit what will feel like a funeral dirge of 4 or 5 drives where UW takes 10 to 12 plays to go 65 yards and WSU has a run of incomplete passes that result in short drives. If our Cougs can make it through that and adjust to UW’s secondary, these seniors will get what they deserve, an Apple Cup victory. When WSU wins the Apple Cup, it’s always done with as much drama as possible; expect more of the same Friday. If you find your way into Husky Stadium, meet me on the W at about 8:45, it’s going to be a party. Go Cougs and Dubs Down.