The Huskies' young secondary had its breakthrough performance in last year's Apple Cup. The Huskies been even better this season, allowing just eight touchdown passes — with 13 interceptions — in 11 games.

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The word choice — fun — was a peculiar one coming from a position coach just three days before his defensive backs play the nation’s most prolific passing offense. But Huskies defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake is embracing the task of (again) slowing down Washington State in Friday’s Apple Cup.

“From a DB perspective, this is fun,” he said.

A year ago, the Huskies’ young secondary, hardened by some early-season growing pains, had its signature performance in Washington’s 31-13 victory over the Cougars on frigid night in Pullman. It was an unexpected breakthrough, and one that helped set the tone for UW’s dominant defense this season.

“It was a heck of a performance for sure,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “I think it was surprising to all of us.”

Early in the 2014 season, the Huskies’ secondary — featuring two true freshmen regular starters in safety Budda Baker and Sidney Jones — were torched by one quarterback from the Palouse. But 12 weeks after Eastern Washington’s Vernon Adams Jr. nearly led an upset at Husky Stadium, the Huskies went to WSU and shut out the Cougars for the first three quarters while building a 31-0 lead.

Luke Falk, in his third career start, threw two interceptions and the Cougars managed just 376 yards of offense, their second-lowest output of the season. WSU came into that game leading the nation with 488.8 yards passing per game.

“To be able to limit that offense to that production from last year was definitely a feather on our cap for sure,” Lake said.

The Huskies (5-6, 3-5 Pac-12) have been even better this season, having allowed just eight touchdown passes — with 13 interceptions — in 11 games.

For perspective, Adams threw seven TD passes against the Huskies in that one game last season.

For more perspective, consider that no Pac-12 team since 2008 has allowed fewer than 12 TD passes over the course of a full season.

Early on last season, it was as if Lake was teaching his young defensive backs basic arithmetic; now, it’s as if he’s a professor teaching them graduate-level courses. Better yet, with the core secondary of Baker, Jones, Kevin King, Darren Gardenhire, Brian Clay and Jojo McIntosh, only Clay will graduate after this season.

“It’s just been really awesome just watching these guys grow and watching them be a step ahead of me now. … They’re finishing my sentences now,” Lake said.

“The D-line, the whole front seven, the linebackers — it’s been fun watching us all play team defense the whole year,” he added. “Hopefully we get to do it again this Friday.”

>>> Qualls expected back

Some promising news for the UW defense: Elijah Qualls, the starting nose tackle in the first eight games of the season, is expected to return after missing most of the past month with an ankle injury.

“He’s practicing this week, and I think you’re going to see him in the game,” UW defensive line coach Jeff Choate said.

Qualls injured his left ankle on the opening drive of UW’s victory over Arizona on Halloween and did not return. Qualls, a 311-pound sophomore, has 24 tackles and 3.5 sacks this season.

Redshirt freshman Greg Gaines has started in Qualls’ place, posting a career-high 10 tackles against Utah.

>>>Apple Cup 20 years ago …

Rashaan Shehee had a career day with 212 rushing yards and three touchdowns, and John Wales kicked a 21-yard field goal with 1:02 to play to give UW a 33-30 victory in the 1995 Apple Cup. Ryan Leaf, a redshirt freshman, made his first start and led the Cougs on a game-tying drive that ended with a Miguel Meriweather 4-yard run and a Leaf 2-point conversion pass to Chad Carpenter with 2:17 left in the game. The win, combined with USC’s loss to UCLA, gave UW a co-conference championship, though USC ended up going to the Rose Bowl based on better overall record.