Asked this week about Washington in advance of Friday’s Apple Cup, Washington State coach Mike Leach replied that the Huskies look “eerily similar” to past years.
But 11 games into a Husky season marked by underperformance and disappointment, we know that’s not really true.
Oh, perhaps in terms of scheme and quality of athletes, Leach is accurate. But it is undeniable that Washington this year is missing something — a spark, a swagger, a strength of conviction — that gives Leach’s Cougars a golden opportunity to end five years of humiliation against Chris Petersen.
I put an asterisk on my prediction of a Cougar win, however. It may require Leach to let go of his steadfast adherence to the Air Raid in all its pass-happy glory. And I’m not sure he’s constitutionally capable of that.
Yes, it’s an unstoppable offense — except against the Huskies, who have not only stopped it but made it look pedestrian. Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake has all but taunted Leach’s stubbornness when it comes to Air Raid or Bust.
Last year Lake noted how the Cougars “do the same thing year in and year out. … So it makes it really easy to game-plan when an offense does the same thing every year.”
In 2015, as chronicled by Theo Lawson of the Spokesman-Review, Lake talked about how the Huskies were the more physical team, to the point that the Cougars had “some nervous receivers going downfield.”
In 2016, after the latest Husky romp, Lake called the Apple Cup “our favorite game of the year. … When we know they’re going to throw the ball 60 times, it really makes game-planning easy.”
And after last year’s victory over a Gardner Minshew-led Cougars team in a Pullman snowstorm, Lake said, “Next year maybe he (Leach) will throw a little curveball, but it makes it very easy when you know what you’re going to get. … But knowing what I read about the head football coach here, he does things a little bit different way. So hopefully he remains here for a long time. That would be awesome.”
That is what’s called laying down the gauntlet. And with justification. The scores alone tell the story of Washington’s domination in the Petersen-Leach version of this rivalry: 31-13, 45-10, 45-17, 41-14, 28-15. The Cougars have yet to score in the first quarter in any of the five games and have committed a whopping 20 turnovers.
You’d think all that would make Leach a little more malleable in his game plan for Friday. So, you’d figure, would be the convenient presence of a multi-talented running back, Max Borghi, who could give fits to the Huskies. Borghi has 740 yards on 111 carries, a whopping 6.7 yards per carry, to go with 69 catches out of the backfield for 508 yards.
The Cougars rank last in the Pac-12 in rushing and have run the ball more than 100 fewer times than any other team. But consider this: In Washington’s five losses this year, one constant is that they’ve been gashed by the opponent’s running game each time. The five teams – Cal, Stanford, Oregon, Utah and Colorado – averaged 171.4 yards on the ground. Colorado ran for 207 yards last week in a 20-14 upset win over the Huskies.
You might point out that it should hardly matter, considering that the Cougars have the second-worst defense in the Pac-12, giving up 467.2 yards per game.
But three of the four teams below WSU are Colorado (455.9 yards per game allowed), Oregon State (453) and Stanford (436) — and the Huskies’ offense fizzled against all of them. Despite having one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks in the nation, they have yet to find consistency on offense, and Jacob Eason has thrown five interceptions in his past three games (two of them returned for touchdowns).
Washington will be the more talented team. But that hardly matters in rivalry games — or in most games this season for the Huskies. While the losses to Utah and Oregon are justifiable, it’s harder to rationalize the defeats to Stanford, Cal and especially Colorado.
The Cougars should come in as the more motivated team, and not just because of Lake’s comments. They desperately want to end the losing streak, and all the talking points that go with it. The Huskies are playing at times like a team that just wants to end the season.
On the other hand, the Huskies’ five losses have come by an average of just 5.2 points, which puts them agonizingly close to a season that would uphold recent standards. Senior center Nick Harris said Tuesday that the defeats have come down to “literally five plays every game that could change the game.”
That’s the way it’s likely to be Friday. But the Cougars are in position to finally change the outcome, providing they don’t prove Lake’s words prophetic. In that case, the results will be eerily similar.