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Washington Huskies vs. Washington State Cougars Preview and Prediction

Jake Browning

Jake Browning

The annual Apple Cup rivalry between Washington and Washington State has extra implications this year, as the winner of Friday’s game will clinch the Pac-12 North title and earn a trip to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. for the conference title game on Dec. 2. There’s also no shortage of national implications in this matchup as well. The Huskies still have playoff aspirations and need to win out in order to earn a spot among the top four teams in the nation.

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Washington State is coming off its first conference loss of the season, suffering a 38-24 defeat at Colorado last Saturday. After an 0-2 start, coach Mike Leach’s squad reeled off eight wins in a row and solidified a place among the top 25 teams in the nation. As usual for a Leach-coached team, Washington State is led by its high-powered offense and quarterback Luke Falk. The defense has also made strides during Leach’s tenure, especially after the hire of coordinator Alex Grinch prior to the 2015 season.

As mentioned above, there’s plenty at stake for Washington this Friday. Not only is the Pac-12 North title hanging in the balance, but the Huskies would have a strong case as a playoff team if they can win their next two games. Third-year coach Chris Petersen has elevated Washington back into one of the Pac-12’s top programs and guided the Huskies to their first season (2016 - 10) of double-digit wins since 2000. Washington was picked as a breakout team prior to the start of 2016, and Petersen’s team has lived up to the hype. Quarterback Jake Browning leads an offense averaging 44.7 points a game – No. 1 in the Pac-12 – and a standout defense has not allowed an opponent to score more than 28 points this season.

This is the 109th meeting between Washington and Washington State. The Huskies hold a 70-32-6 series edge and have claimed six out of the last seven games over the Cougars. Washington State’s last victory over Washington took place in 2012.

Washington at Washington State

Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FOX

Spread: Washington -6

Three Things to Watch

1. Washington State’s Passing Game Against Washington’s Secondary

This is the must-see matchup on Friday afternoon in Pullman. Washington State quarterback Luke Falk has passed for 3,935 yards and 36 touchdowns this season and leads a passing attack ranked No. 2 nationally at 380 yards per game. The junior has been efficient (only seven interceptions on 532 attempts) and is tied for first nationally with a 71.4 completion percentage. While Leach’s system allows for quarterbacks and receivers to post huge totals, Falk is more than a product of a system. The junior is a rising NFL Draft prospect and will have a decision on his senior year to make at the end of the season.

Falk has plenty of talent among his supporting cast at receiver and running back.  Washington State isn’t going to run it 35-40 times a game, but the Cougars average 4.6 yards per carry – the highest under Leach’s watch. Jamal Morrow (543 yards) leads the team on the ground, but James Williams (6.2 ypc) and Gerard Wicks (441 yards) will see plenty of snaps. At receiver, Gabe Marks is one of the nation’s best (74 grabs), with Tavares Martin (57), Kyle Sweet (23) and Robert Lewis (23) providing secondary options.

How will the Huskies counter Falk and the Washington State receivers? The success of this unit starts up front, but the secondary is one of the best in college football. Cornerback Sidney Jones is ticketed for All-America honors after a standout 2016 campaign, and safety Budda Baker (56 tackles) is also one of the top defenders in the nation. Jones and Baker lead the way for a secondary that ranks third in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense and has allowed only 12 passing scores all year. Will Jones match up against Marks for most of the game? And if that’s the case, which player will win the one-on-one battles? Even if the Huskies surrender some yards, the key for Petersen’s defense is to limit the big plays.

Related: Predictions for Every College Football Game in Week 13

2. Washington’s Pass Rush

Washington ranks second in the Pac-12 with 34 generated sacks, but this area will be under the microscope on Friday. Seven players have recorded at least three sacks for the Huskies this season, but Joe Mathis (five) was lost after the win against Oregon on Oct. 8. The linebacking corps is also without standout Azeem Victor, but Mathis was a key cog in the pass rush. With Mathis out of the lineup, Washington recorded only four sacks over its next four games. However, the Huskies generated six in last week’s win over Arizona State. The Sun Devils have struggled all year in pass protection, so it’s hard to say whether or not the pass rush concerns were solved.

Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense will have a better idea of how the pass rush stacks up on Saturday, as Washington State’s offensive line has been solid (25 sacks allowed) in 2016. This unit is anchored by junior Cody O’Connell, with four of the five starters checking in over 300 pounds. Protecting Falk and winning the battle up front is critical to the Cougars’ chances of an upset. Will Washington’s pass rush meet at the quarterback for a second week in a row? Or will Washington State’s offensive line pick up the blitzes and allow Falk plenty of time to attack the field?

3. Washington’s Offense

Much of the focus in this game is going to be on Washington’s defense against Washington State’s offense, but the Huskies hold a slight lead over the Cougars as the Pac-12’s most-prolific offense in 2016. Washington averages 44.7 points a game (43 in Pac-12 games) and records 7.3 yards per play. Quarterback Jake Browning took a big step forward from his freshman campaign and has passed for 2,870 yards and 37 touchdowns. One of the biggest reasons for Washington’s improvement through the air was the return of receiver John Ross from injury. The junior has added a big-play threat on the outside and averages 15.5 yards per reception. Defending Ross and preventing connections on deep passes is a priority for a Washington State secondary ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense. The Cougars have also surrendered 12 passing plays of 40 yards or more.

Stopping the pass isn’t the only concern for coordinator Alex Grinch. Myles Gaskin has eclipsed 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and has rushed for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2016. Gaskin will test a Washington State run defense ranked first in the Pac-12, limiting opponents to 129.7 yards per game. While the Cougars lead the Pac-12 in run defense, it’s important to note Washington State has faced the second-fewest rush attempts of Pac-12 teams and gave up 258 yards to Colorado last week. Tackle Robert Barber's return to the lineup last week was a key development for the Cougars, and he will play an even bigger role this week in providing support on the interior. However, Gaskin and backfield mate Lavon Coleman will test the run defense. If Washington establishes the run, that sets up big plays downfield to Ross. 

Final Analysis

The last two meetings in this series resulted in dominant Washington victories. The Huskies won 45-10 last year and 31-13 in 2014. Expect a much closer game this season. With everything at stake, Washington State is going to give Washington all it can handle and more. Falk didn’t play due to injury in last year’s matchup, so there’s an extra source of motivation for the junior quarterback. There’s also the spoiler role to consider for the Cougars. A win over Washington ends the Huskies’ playoff hopes and sends Washington State to the Pac-12 Championship Game. Expect a tight game, but the Huskies escape Pullman with a close victory, thanks to a late defensive stand and a fourth-quarter drive led by quarterback Jake Browning.

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Prediction: Washington 38, Washington State 34