The Washington State Cougars will play to keep their Pac-12 North title hopes alive when they visit the rival Washington Huskies in the 2021 Apple Cup on Friday night (5 pm PT, FS1). The Huskies are riding a seven-game winning streak in the series, and this is the first time these two teams will play since 2019. If WSU can break its losing streak, it will be an Oregon State win over its own rival away from being the Pac-12 North’s representative in the conference championship game.
The Huskies are just here to play spoiler, something they have been very good at in recent history. Can WSU get its first win over its purple-clad nemesis since 2012? Let’s look at the players and trends that will impact the 2021 Apple Cup.
All advanced statistics in this piece come from collegefootballdata.com.
When Washington has the ball...
The Washington offense hasn’t been totally devoid of successful plays—the Huskies are middle of the road (67th) in success rate. However, when they do have a successful play it tends to go for the bare minimum—they are 126th in explosiveness. That lack of explosion places them at 105th in predictive points added (PPA) per play.
The Dawgs have struggled most through the air, ranking 99th in PPA per passing play. Dylan Morris has completed 61% of his passes for 6.8 yards per attempt (YPA) and 14 touchdowns. The YPA is the lowest of any UW quarterback since 2012, and his 12 interceptions are coming at a rate higher than any UW quarterback since at least 2009 (that’s as far as cfbstats.com goes back).
Morris’s performance has led UW to give a look at freshman quarterback Sam Huard, who has only thrown 11 passes so far this season but could see action in the Apple Cup.
When the Huskies have thrown the ball, it has most often gone to two freshman receivers—Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze. McMillan is the more effective pass-catcher, averaging 12 yards/catch. Odunze is gaining just over nine yards per reception.
Terrell Bynum has been UW’s most explosive threat, but he has missed the last two games for an undisclosed reason, and that came after logging just one catch in UW’s preview two games. TIght end Cade Otton is a big body at 6’5, 250 but missed last week’s game against Colorado.
Washington has been only slightly more successful offensively when running the ball—it ranks 88th in PPA per rushing attempt. Sean McGrew is UW’s top running back when healthy, but he has played in just seven games this season, including missing the last two. If he does play, he is a small, but strong back that has accumulated 431 yards and eight touchdowns on 107 carries.
Cameron Davis has stepped into the primary running back role in McGew’s absence, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. Kamari Pleasant has also seen an uptick in carries and has been effective overall, picking up 274 yards on 49 rushes.
Overall, UW struggles on standard downs (99th in PPA) and passing downs (102nd). When the Huskies do get into a scoring opportunity—inside the 40-yard line—they are just 81st in points per opportunity.
Can WSU’s defense help continue UW’s offensive futility? The Cougs’ strength has been defending the pass all season—they are 56th in passing down PPA allowed and 65th in passing downs PPA allowed. They have a talented secondary that may be impacted by injury, but they should be able to limit UW’s passing game to its normal effectiveness or worse.
As for the ground game, that’s weakness vs. weakness. WSU is 99th in rushing PPA allowed. UW shouldn’t be able to exploit that like some teams have this season (Oregon State, BYU), but it’s possible the Dawgs might find a little more success on the ground than usual.
One significant point in WSU’s favor is its ability to limit explosives. The Cougs frequently let teams have successful plays—106th in success rate allowed—but on those successful plays, they are 10th-best at limiting explosives. Combine that with UW’s inability to create big gains, and WSU may be looking at bending but never breaking as a solid strategy. That’s where UW’s inability to finish drives that reach the opponent’s 40 could come into play.
When Washington State has the ball...
The Husky defense is solid overall—37th in PPA, but there’s a stark difference in the way they defend the run and pass. Washington ranks 11th in PPA allowed on passing plays, but 101st in PPA allowed on rushing plays. The Huskies do allow successful plays—68th in success rate allowed—but they are even better than WSU’s defense in limiting explosives, ranking 2nd nationally in explosives allowed on successful plays.
UW is effective on both standard downs (28th in PPA allowed) and passing downs (also 28th). That strength on passing downs conflicts with WSU’s best offensive asset—its ability to recover and continue drives on obvious passing downs. The Cougs are 21st in passing downs PPA.
Despite that passing down success—which is often typical of a team that throws the ball regularly—the Cougs are just 71st in passing PPA—although definitely better since Jayden de Laura has taken over the starting job permanently. Despite the more recent passing success, with UW’s strength in defending the pass, it could be difficult for de Laura to get it going through the air.
So, would WSU try to keep it on the ground more to attack Washington’s weakness defending the run? The Cougs are 56th in rushing PPA, and two of its best skill players—Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh—are in the backfield.
The key for the Cougs will be to avoid situations where UW absolutely knows WSU is going to throw the ball. Success in the run game could lead to that—if the Cougs are picking up nice gains on their runs, they could get into more manageable late downs and keep the Husky defense guessing. Relying on passing down conversions is a recipe for failure.
The Bottom Line
The 2021 Apple Cup is mostly even on the balance. It’s likely going to come down to turnovers, early-down effectiveness, and whether or not each offense can finish their drives once deep in enemy territory. The scariest element for Coug fans should be UW’s passing defense. The scariest element for UW fans should be the Husky offense.
One thing that may give WSU supporters cause for optimism is that the Cougs have been a better team in the second half of the season, and the numbers in the preview come from all 11 games. Zane Murfitt beautifully illustrated Wazzu’s improvement in this post—showing how WSU has been getting better at finishing drives, has become very explosive, and has improved against the run. He also shows how UW has gotten worse against the run.
It’s probably worth a shot for WSU to trend towards the run more than usual in this Apple Cup—they were explosive on the ground last week, and explosives could be a differentiator. Getting them through the air could be a challenge. The Cougs have the talent to move the ball on the ground against the Huskies, and doing so may be its most likely path to victory.