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Apple Cup main attraction: Washington State’s Alex Grinch against Washington’s Pete Kwiatkowski

PULLMAN – Alex Grinch should be well-versed in Apple Cup ground rules, seeing as how he’s preparing to coach in his third one on Saturday, but Washington State’s defensive coordinator still went and committed a cardinal sin – er, crimson sin – last Thursday after the Cougars’ practice at Rogers Field in Pullman.

“When you’re at Washington State, I know you’re not supposed to be a fan obviously of anything purple and gold,” Grinch said of the Washington Huskies’ defense. “But I make a point to watch them defensively every single week. … Watching those guys defensively, the way they play you want to emulate. It’s not necessarily the same calls and all those things, but just extremely impressed with their coaching staff, putting those guys in the right position to be successful.”

Grinch has become one of the most popular figures in Pullman this season, otherwise the Cougars’ fan base might have a hard time forgiving the DC for delivering such high praise to a mortal enemy.

But an author doesn’t expand his vocabulary only by skimming his own work and Grinch would consider himself a connoisseur of good defense. So it’s hard to ignore Pete Kwiatkowski’s unit on the other side of the Cascades.

Another warning for WSU fans: Close your ears if you’re not ready to listen.

“They play fast, they play hard, they play aggressive,” Grinch said. “… If you wrote on a whiteboard all the things that you want a defense to do, they do those things. It’s on the front end all the way to the back end. I know I’m not supposed to say it, but I’m a fan of what those guys are able to do and I continue to watch and admire all they’ve done.”

Likewise, Grinch now has his own band of admirers at Washington State. His defense – the “Speed D” for short – has gained a cult following, primarily made up of Cougars fans, although a handful of opposing coaches have also taken notice and paid compliments.

Including the one game-planning to beat it.

“It’s always been, since (WSU head coach) Mike Leach has been there, about that offense and everybody knows how prolific they are in terms of scoring points and moving the ball and what a great system they have and that hasn’t changed,” UW’s Chris Petersen said. “The thing that has changed is the type of defense that they’re playing.”

The 110th chapter of the Apple Cup features a pair of quarterbacks who’ll be cashing NFL checks within the next few years, but Luke Falk vs. Jake Browning might not be quite as riveting as the duel between the defensive coordinators: WSU’s Grinch vs. UW’s Kwiatkowski.

By almost every metric, Saturday’s Apple Cup, will double as a sparring match between the Pac-12’s two best defenses. The Huskies (9-2, 6-2) and Cougars (9-2, 6-2) are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in total defense (271.3 yards per game allowed for UW vs. 303.8 for WSU), rushing defense (102.9 ypg for UW vs. 129.6 for WSU) and passing defense (168.4 ypg for UW vs. 174.2 for WSU).

The Huskies have given up seven passing touchdowns in 11 games and the Cougars have conceded eight. Third best in the Pac-12 is Stanford, at 13.

UW is the conference’s leader in scoring defense (14.5 ppg), while WSU is third (22.9). The Cougars are the only team in the Pac-12 that has pitched a shutout this season and they’ve done it twice – vs. Montana State (31-0) and Colorado (28-0).

The Cougars have also been takeaway artists, forcing 27 turnovers through 11 games. They’ve already met Grinch’s season quota of 24, which, according to a formula the DC has used since he arrived in Pullman, should guarantee that WSU wins nine games. It sure held up in 2017.

“It’s one thing to talk about, it’s another thing to actually go do it,” Grinch said. “But no, it’s held true in college football over the last three, four years in terms of those numbers. … Very pleased and it’s the kids buying into it.”

“Those kids play hard and everybody struggles with (the defense),” Petersen said.

Where the Cougars are markedly better than the Huskies is on third down. Grinch’s crew is known to pin the opponent back on first and second downs and WSU’s defensive front generally doesn’t dial back the pressure on third down. The Cougars have conceded 37 third-down conversions this season – tying Michigan and Georgia Tech for a national low – and they’re allowing the opposition to convert on just 25 percent of third-down attempts, tied for second in the country.

“The longer those third downs are to convert, the harder it is,” Petersen said. “… They just move and blow things up.”

Hercules Mata’afa has had a hand in most of those eruptions. The WSU defensive tackle is first among Pac-12 players and third nationally with 21.5 tackles for loss. His 9.5 sacks are also tops in the Pac-12 and tied for seventh in the country. But the junior, at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, isn’t a traditional D-line mauler who breaks into the backfield by outmuscling his opponent.

Mata’afa is a quick-twitch player who often relies on instinct and fundamentals – pad level, leverage and timing – to win his battles in the trenches. Still, he’s inordinately strong for his size and “a big-time athlete,” according to Petersen.

“Herc is very unique. He’s special,” WSU nose tackle Daniel Ekuale said.

On Saturday, the Huskies will counter with redshirt junior defensive tackle Vita Vea – another one of the country’s preeminent trench workers. Vea carries a large frame at 6-5, 350 pounds, but he comes from the same mold as former Huskies tackle Danny Shelton – a big guy who can move his 350 pounds as well as most linebackers move 250.

Kwiatkowski’s defense is stocked with specimens like Vea. The unit lost four players to the 2017 NFL Draft – Kevin King, Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Elijah Qualls – but in year No. 4 under Kwiatowski, the Huskies are replenishing better than anyone in the conference.

Four players from Kwiatkowksi’s defense were selected in the first two rounds of the 2015 NFL Draft and the Huskies followed by winning 12 games the next season. UW won the Pac-12 crown, represented the league in the College Football Playoff and did it while giving up 17 points per game.

“They dump those guys in the league then they reload, then they’ll dump some more,” Leach said.