The Cougars haven't won an Apple Cup since 2012, Mike Leach's first season. What needs to change for them to beat UW this Saturday?

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It seems overly simplistic to boil it down to this, but if Washington State wants to beat UW this Saturday in the Apple Cup, it’s imperative that the Cougars start fast.

The Cougars rank No. 14 to UW’s No. 15 but UW has the psychological advantage because WSU enters Saturday’s regular season finale with a four-game Apple Cup losing streak.

For things to change, the Cougs can’t afford to sleepwalk through the first quarter. This startling statistic backs up that proclamation: The Huskies have outscored the Cougars 45-9 in the first quarter of the last five Apple Cups combined, and WSU has not scored a first quarter touchdown against UW in the entirety of Mike Leach’s tenure in Pullman.

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Perhaps the Cougars have caught on to this trend too.

Wide receiver Renard Bell said Tuesday that coaches have stressed the importance of a fast start all week.

“It’s been a real big point of emphasis because the past couple of weeks, we haven’t started fast, and if we have, we haven’t stayed consistent,” Bell said. “We’re just staying focused on playing hard and playing more physical.”

WSU has been a slow starting team for most of this season. It’s scored fewer points in the first quarter – 65 – than at any other juncture in games, which equates to about 5.9 points per game, less than a touchdown.

That stat, then, would be consistent with the Cougars’ recent issues in the Apple Cup.

In 2013, when most of this senior class was still redshirting, WSU punted on its first three possessions before finally scoring on a field goal in the second quarter.

In 2014, quarterback Luke Falk’s first Apple Cup, it was much of the same. The Cougars turned the ball over on downs on their first three possessions and did not score until the fourth quarter.

Falk sat out the 2015 Apple Cup with a concussion. His backup, Peyton Bender, led WSU to a field goal on its first possession, but thereafter, the Cougars didn’t score again until the third quarter when, down 24-3, Bender finally connected with Dom Williams for a 1-yard touchdown. In between, WSU’s drives ended like this: fumble, missed field goal, punt, punt, fumble, interception, punt.

Falk played in his second Apple Cup last season, but things didn’t go any better. The opening drive ended with a Jamal Morrow fumble that UW recovered. Erik Powell managed a 37-yard field goal on WSU’s second possession to give the illusion that the Cougars had a pulse. But defensively, they couldn’t stop the Huskies, who scored touchdowns on four-straight possessions to go up 28-3 by the end of the first quarter.

Offensively, the Huskies have outgained the Cougars every year since 2013, averaging 448.8 yards per Apple Cup compared to WSU’s 338.8. They’ve also converted 46 percent of third downs compared to WSU’s 32 percent.

The numbers suggest that Leach’s Cougars have struggled harder against Petersen’s UW teams than any other Pac-12 foe.

Pac-12 Network analyst Yogi Roth suggests this might be because of the style of defense UW plays.

“They play man press coverage outside, and you can literally win down the middle (if) you have the pressure to disrupt passing and throwing lanes a bit,” Roth said of the No.4-ranked UW defense. “That’s why they’re elite.”

(Interestingly, WSU’s two losses this year have come against teams with strong ties to Petersen’s coaching tree – Cal head coach Justin Wilcox was defensive coordinator under Petersen at Boise State and again at UW from 2012-13. Arizona defensive coordinator Marcel Yates was a longtime defensive assistant under Petersen at Boise State from 2006-11.)

The Cougars readily admit that they’ve underperformed in the Apple Cup in recent years, and that, perhaps, is why they haven’t beaten the Huskies since 2012, when they took down UW 31-28 in overtime.

“I think the past few years we’ve played them, it always seems like people don’t come ready to play UW. They think of UW as our big brother,” said senior defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale. “I don’t believe in any of that. We’ve got a great chance (Saturday) but we’ve got to come prepared and ready to attack and have a great game plan.”

So what will WSU have to do to finally beat a Petersen-helmed UW team?

“If UW can disrupt the quarterback’s timing and do it in the quick game with Luke, that’s a huge advantage to UW,” Roth said. “If Luke hangs on to the football, I don’t think WSU wins. If he gets the ball out and they average five yards per (touch) they’ll win the game.

“But if the UW forces Falk to get to his third or fourth read consistently, it’s a big advantage to UW.”

On the flipside, WSU’s 2017 defense is the best it’s had in the Leach era. The Cougars rank 11th-nationally in total defense under third-year coordinator Alex Grinch, and their 27 turnovers are third-most nationally. The Cougars also rank second nationally with 94 tackles for loss, and sixth with 36 sacks.

Depending on whether the Cougars can jumpstart their offense from the opening kickoff, this one could evolve into a low-scoring defensive affair.

But as they showed with their seven forced turnovers against Utah, WSU now at least has a defense that can create opportunities for its offense.

The Cougars know what’s at stake, and with a trip to the Pac-12 championship game on the line, they say they’re raring to go.

“We control our own destiny. All we need is one win,” Ekuale said. “I feel like all the guys on defense are really confident about the challenge we have this upcoming week.”