Washington and Washington State are set to clash in the 110th Apple Cup on Saturday (5 p.m. / FOX). We take a look at who's got the advantage from the quarterbacks to the coaches.
WSU’s Luke Falk is the Pac-12’s career leader in touchdowns and yards, but UW’s Jake Browning has won two Apple Cups in his career, while Falk is 0 for 2 against the Huskies. Both quarterbacks have had their struggles this year. Falk was benched for his backup, Tyler Hilinski, on two occasions after ineffective starts. Browning has made some costly mistakes at crucial moments in the second half of the season – big sacks for loss late in the game against Stanford come to mind here. But overall, these two will go down as two of the best quarterbacks to ever play at their respective schools. Browning leads the Pac-12 with a pass efficiency rating of 156.8, and has thrown only five interceptions all year, to 18 touchdowns. Falk leads all Pac-12 quarterbacks with 29 passing touchdowns and is 12th nationally, averaging 293.1 pass yards per game. But, Browning gets the nod in the head-to-head column simply because he’s had more success against WSU in his career.
The Huskies have become more reliant on their running game this year, with Lynnwood native Myles Gaskin accounting for more than half of UW’s 29 rushing touchdowns. Gaskin, a junior, is averaging 6 yards per carry and 99.1 rush yards per game. He has three 100-yard rushing efforts in the Huskies’ last four games, and has emerged as UW’s most dangerous offensive skill player. Conversely, the Cougars have relied less on their running game this year despite returning their top three rushers from last season. WSU has only scored seven touchdowns on the ground, and the combination of Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks have averaged only 80 rush yards per game. However, the Huskies have traditionally managed to shut down WSU’s pass game, and if that holds true again this year, the Cougars might benefit from trying to establish the run. Morrow has been the most productive of WSU’s three backs this year, averaging 46.5 rush yards per game, and 36.6 receiving yards per game. He has three rushing scores and three receiving scores, and has been a reliable safety valve for Luke Falk this season.
WSU has an embarrassment of riches at receiver this year, and Falk has certainly distributed the wealth nicely. Junior X-receiver Tavares Martin leads the pack with nine receiving touchdowns, and he’s second in the Pac-12 with 6.5 receptions per game. Isaiah Johnson-Mack has proved to be a solid second option at Z-receiver and is second on the team with five touchdowns and 530 receiving yards. WSU has also been pleasantly surprised by its trio of productive freshmen. Jamire Calvin (32 rec, 3 TD), Renard Bell (33 rec, 3 TD) and Tay Martin (19 rec, 3 TD) all factor heavily into the offense. Meanwhile, UW’s passing game has suffered this season due to injuries that have devastated its receiving corps. With Chico McClatcher, Quinten Pounds and Hunter Bryant out, Dante Pettis and tight end Will Dissly have had to carry a young receiving corps. This is in part why Browning has thrown only 18 touchdown passes this year, compared to 43 in 2016.
The Huskies’ offensive line hasn’t been the same since it lost left tackle Trey Adams to a season-ending ACL tear in its defeat to Arizona State. Redshirt freshman Luke Wattenberg replaced Adams, and has had his good and bad moments, but there’s no denying there’s been a dropoff since Adams’ injury. After giving up only six sacks in its first six games, the Huskies have allowed nine in the second half of the season. WSU has also had its offensive line struggles this year, with the line’s worst performance coming against Cal, when it allowed nine sacks. The line play has improved since that game, allowing seven sacks in the last four games and giving Falk plenty of time to throw in the win over Utah.
In UW’s Greg Gaines and Vita Vea and WSU’s Hercules Mata’afa and Daniel Ekuale, this game will feature four of the best defensive linemen in the Pac-12. The Cougars are second in the conference with 35 sacks, and 17 of those have come from the defensive line, with Hercules Mata’afa contributing a team-high 9.5. But UW’s defensive line has also been dominant. The Huskies are third in the Pac-12 with 33 sacks. Vea has three sacks, with 2.5 each coming from Jaylen Johnson and Gaines. Both defensive lines have shown a knocking for disrupting the rhythm of opposing passers, and each unit could potentially decide the outcome of the game.
Injuries have ravaged WSU’s LB corps almost as much as they’ve depleted the UW WR corps. Peyton Pelluer and Nate DeRider suffered season ending injuries early. Isaac Dotson missed four games with a concussion, but returned to start at middle linebacker against Utah. Justus Rogers and Jahad Woods have been decent fill-ins in the absence of WSU’s veterans, with Woods, specifically, making his impact felt with 10 tackles for loss – No. 3 on WSU’s defense. The Huskies, however, are so deep at linebacker that All-American Azeem Victor has ridden the bench all season. Junior Ben Burr-Kirven leads the defense with 72 tackles, has 4.0 tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles. Senior Keyshawn Bierria also has 4 TFL and is fifth on the defense with 45 tackles.
UW has the top-ranked pass defense in the Pac-12, having allowed only seven passing touchdowns this season. WSU’s is right behind them. The Cougars have allowed only eight passing touchdowns, and the secondary is responsible for 10 of WSU’s 14 interceptions. The Huskies have intercepted 10 passes this year, with the secondary accounting for five. Strong safety Jalen Thompson leads WSU with 63 tackles and four interceptions. UW got a big boost with the return of cornerback Byron Murphy, and the Huskies get the edge because they have the higher-ranked pass defense, and they’ve shut down Luke Falk and the Cougars’ pass offense before.
Erik Powell is the Cougars’ best special teams weapon with his big left leg that has already hit three 50+- yard field goals this season. Powell is 19 of 23 on field goals this year, has won Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week thrice, and has also been excellent on kickoffs, with 29 touchbacks on 63 kicks. On the flipside, WSU’s kick coverage has been a concern the last two weeks in part because injuries have affected the Cougars’ depth on its kickoff squad. UW return man Dante Pettis has returned four punts for touchdowns this year, and is always a threat to go the distance. But the Huskies have been wildly inconsistent on field goals. Tristan Vizcaino made the game-winning kick against Utah last week, but that came after he missed a field goal and a PAT early. Vizcaino is 10 of 17 this season, and his erratic kicking has affected the Huskies’ strategic capabilities on offense.
WSU goes into the Apple Cup toting an 0-4 losing streak against the Huskies, and until they’re able to snap that streak, the evidence shows that Chris Petersen has outcoached Mike Leach in this big game every year that he’s been at UW.