The stakes are high in the Apple Cup rivalry on Saturday night, as Washington State travels to Seattle needing a win over Washington to claim the Pac-12 North Division title. The Huskies were in this spot last year and won in Pullman 45-17 to claim the division title, which coach Chris Petersen’s team parlayed into a Pac-12 Championship and a spot in the CFB Playoff. If Washington State loses, Stanford owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Washington and would play USC in the Pac-12 title game on Friday, Dec. 1.
After the trip to the CFB Playoff last season, Washington was projected to make another run at a spot in the top four in 2017. However, a surprising 13-7 loss against Arizona State left the Huskies with no margin for error, and the loss at Stanford on Nov. 10 ended any hopes this team had of a repeat playoff bid. While the lofty goal of another CFB Playoff berth won’t happen, Petersen still has this program on track and a win over Washington State would give Washington back-to-back seasons of double-digit wins for the first time since 1990-91.
Similar to its in-state rival, Washington State is clearly trending up. Under coach Mike Leach, the Cougars have won 26 games over the last three seasons and are on the cusp of their first appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Of course, one opponent has largely eluded Leach in his tenure: Washington. Washington State is just 1-4 against the Huskies under Leach’s direction. Additionally, Washington has outscored the Cougars 121-40 over the last three meetings. If Leach’s team can knock off the Huskies in Seattle, it’s another huge step forward for this program.
Washington holds a 71-32-6 series edge over Washington State. The Huskies have won seven out of the last eight matchups in this rivalry.
Washington State at Washington
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 25 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Washington -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Washington State QB Luke Falk
Falk sits atop the Pac-12 record books in career passing yardage (14,117) and touchdown passes (118) and is one passing score away from having three consecutive years of at least 30 touchdown tosses.
For the most part, Falk has been excellent this season. He’s passed for 3,224 yards and 29 touchdowns and completed 66.8 percent of his passes. However, Falk was benched against Boise State and Arizona in favor of backup Tyler Hilinski. The senior responded in a big way after the removal from the lineup, as Falk torched Oregon State for 396 yards and six scores after the Boise State game and threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns versus Stanford (after Arizona).
While Falk has etched a spot in the Pac-12 record book and is a big reason why Washington State’s offense is among the best in college football, he’s struggled against Washington. In last year’s game, Falk completed 33 of 50 passes for 269 yards and one touchdown to three picks. He missed the 2015 game due to injury and connected on 27 of 49 passes for 355 yards and two touchdowns to two interceptions in 2014.
In order for Washington State to win this game, Leach needs Falk to be efficient, get the ball to his receivers in space and limit the mistakes. Of Falk’s 10 interceptions this season, six came in the Cougars’ two losses. Washington’s secondary was hit hard by personnel departures at the end of the 2016 season and had to overcome a couple of injuries this year. Jordan Miller is out for the year due to a leg injury suffered against Arizona State, but Byron Murphy returned to the lineup in last week’s win over Utah after missing the previous seven games. With Falk at the controls and poised to drop back 40-50 times, Washington State will test the depth and overall ability of Washington’s secondary. The Cougars feature eight players with at least 26 receptions in the passing game, including top receiver Tavares Martin (65) and Isaiah Johnson-Mack (57). The Huskies are second in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense and boast a pass rush that ranks third in the conference with 33 sacks. Protecting Falk figures to be a challenge against Washington's stout front seven, especially with Washington State's offensive line giving up 39 sacks in 11 games.
Will Falk cap his senior year with his best performance against Washington? And just like the Huskies have managed to do under coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, can this defense create pressure, generate a couple of takeaways and limit the big plays for the Cougars’ passing attack?
2. Washington’s Offense
Led by junior quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin, Washington’s offense remains one of the best in the Pac-12. This unit’s scoring average has dropped by a couple of points (41.8 to 36.5) from last season but is averaging 44 points in home matchups (best of any team in the Pac-12).
After throwing 43 touchdown passes last season, Browning has just 18 through 11 contests in 2017. However, Browning remains efficient (69.1 completion percentage) and has tossed only five picks on 291 attempts. On the ground, Gaskin exceeded the 1,000-yard mark for the third year in a row and remains a valuable outlet for Browning out of the backfield with 18 receptions.
In addition to the slight drop in scoring, another reason Washington’s offense hasn’t been firing on all cylinders has been the lack of big plays. After generating 21 plays of 40 or more yards last fall, the Huskies only have 10 through 11 contests. The loss of receiver John Ross to the NFL is the prominent reason for the drop in big plays, but the receiving corps also lost tight end Hunter Bryant and receiver Chico McClatcher for the year due to injuries. With those two players sidelined, Browning has been forced to focus even more on Dante Pettis (60 catches for 706 yards), with Aaron Fuller (19) and Andre Baccellia (12) rounding out the secondary targets. One other concern for Petersen’s offense has been the play in the trenches. Standout left tackle Trey Adams was lost for the year due to injury after the Arizona State matchup, and the line was an issue in pass protection in the loss against Stanford. This unit hasn't been awful, but it has been inconsistent and struggled to get a push in the run game at times.
What does all of that mean for Saturday night’s matchup? While Washington’s defense is arguably the best in the Pac-12, Washington State’s group isn’t too far behind. Under coordinator Alex Grinch, the Cougars are limiting opponents to 22.9 points a game and 4.86 yards per play. Since taking over as the play-caller in 2015, Grinch has helped Washington State's defense show marked improvement - and this group is a big reason why the Cougars are playing for a Pac-12 North title on Saturday. This unit is also strong at the point of attack (35 sacks) and ranks second in the Pac-12 against the run. Tackle Hercules Mata’afa is the catalyst for this group and is making a strong case for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors (21.5 TFL and 9.5 sacks). In order for Washington to win, it has to win the battle up front and keep Mata’afa away from Browning. Gaskin only rushed for 50 yards in last year’s meeting between these two teams. The Huskies probably need more than that to win this time around.
3. Which Defense Delivers?
As mentioned in the two previous sections, two of the Pac-12’s top defenses will be on display Saturday night. In the four main statistical categories on defense – total, rush, scoring and pass efficiency defense – the Cougars and Huskies take the top two spots in each of those rankings among Pac-12 teams. And if that wasn’t enough to signal how good both units are, Washington and Washington State have combined for 68 sacks and have allowed the fewest plays of 40 yards or more in the Pac-12.
But here’s one number to watch on Saturday night: Takeaways. The Huskies have 17 generated takeaways, with Washington State leading the conference at 27. With a tight game expected, turnovers are likely to be a deciding factor. Over the last three meetings between these two teams, Washington has a plus-11 turnover margin against Washington State. Can the Cougars reverse that with a couple of takeaways? Grinch’s defense needs to get pressure on Browning on passing downs and limit Gaskin on first downs. When Washington State has the ball, the Huskies want to follow a similar blueprint: Get into long-yardage situations, pressure Falk and create mistakes.
Considering Washington State is coming off a bye week and has more to play for (Pac-12 North title), it’s tempting to take Leach’s team to pull off the upset. Turnovers, the play on the line of scrimmage for both teams and quarterback performance are just a few factors to watch. With Vita Via and Greg Gaines leading the way in the trenches for Washington, the defense will do just enough to keep Falk in check. And for the second week in a row, Browning and Gaskin make enough plays in the second half to give Petersen’s team a victory.