PULLMAN – Tonight’s Apple Cup will be a matchup of strength on strength and the trophy will go to the winner of the battle between Washington’s defense and Washington State’s offense.
More specifically, the game will likely be decided by whether or not the UW pass rush – No. 2 nationally in total sacks – can throw off the country’s No. 1 passing offense.
At stake is merely a yearlong claim to bragging rights. Win or lose, UW will be going to a lower-tier bowl game and the Cougars will begin their offseason on Monday. Still, waking up for those early lifting sessions will be a little easier with an Apple Cup in the trophy case.
“It might be a little more chippy than most games,” warned WSU left tackle Joe Dahl. “For the most part it’s like any other game but your mentality, you want to win just a little bit more. We want to win every game but this one’s a little bit special to us.”
If anyone is going to bear the brunt of that chippiness it’s Dahl, who says he has given up one sack this season but will be hard-pressed to not give up any this evening.
The Huskies have a pair of defensive ends that are top-15 nationally in total sacks, and defensive end Andrew Hudson is No. 29. National sack leader Hau’oli Kikaha, who has only been held without a sack once this season, has brought down opposing quarterbacks 17.5 times.
“Both edge guys are as good as you’re going to play,” said offensive line coach Clay McGuire.
But the engine that makes UW’s pass rush so effective is 340-pound nose tackle Danny Shelton.
“For a big guy like that he’s really explosive,” McGuire said. “A lot of big guys like that typically don’t do well against us. They’re usually slower run-plugger guys but you see some snap off him, he’s got some good twitch and he gets off the ball. He’s pretty violent in there.”
Luke Falk has proven capable of running WSU’s high-volume passing Air Raid offense, throwing for 1,421 yards and 10 touchdowns in just over 11 quarters since taking over for injured quarterback Connor Halliday.
And he’s been very good in the pocket, avoiding pressure and keeping his eyes downfield, and throwing the ball away when appropriate. Still, he’s been sacked 13 times since becoming the starting quarterback for the Cougars and he has yet to face a defensive line as productive as Washington’s.
Offensively, the Huskies play it safe, most of the time. They run the ball much more than they pass it, and while quarterback Cyler Miles averages less than 200 passing yards per game, he has thrown only two interceptions.
But first-year coach Chris Petersen developed a reputation for trickery at Boise State and he’s brought those gadget plays to UW.
So far this season, two receivers and a running back have attempted passes for UW. Four receivers have rushed the ball and linebacker Shaq Thompson is the team’s third-leading rusher with 463 yards.
Linebackers coach Ken Wilson said that they expect the Huskies to try some gadget plays and the defense will be on guard for them.
“But it’s being sound and it’s keeping on the attack,” Wilson said. “As long as you’re on the attack and you’re controlling the tempo of the game you’re usually in pretty good shape. If you get back on your heels, that’s when that stuff starts to work. We’ve been working really hard for about a month now of these guys attacking constantly.”
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