SEATTLE – Praise doesn’t come much more effusive than when opposing defensive coaches are asked to evaluate Washington State’s offense.
Under fourth-year coach Mike Leach, the Cougars throw the ball a bunch, and they’ve become pretty good at it: they rank fourth nationally in touchdown passes (38), second in completion percentage (69.4), and first in total passing yards – all numbers that have helped them to an 8-3 record and a No. 20 national ranking.
So, too, have receivers Gabe Marks (1,067 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Dom Williams (950 yards, 10 touchdowns), and quarterback Luke Falk (4,622 passing yards, 36 touchdowns), though his status is uncertain after he suffered an apparent head injury last week.
Regardless, Huskies defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake knows that his players might have to defend 60 or 70 passes during Friday’s Apple Cup game at Husky Stadium.
Which is just fine with them.
“They’re excited,” Lake said Tuesday. “From a DB perspective, we’d definitely rather play an offense like this than play an Air Force or a Georgia Tech, that’s for sure. That’s an unbelievable challenge there, those two teams. But from a DB perspective, this is fun. It’s challenging.”
And it should be fun for anyone who watches, too, because this could be one of the most competitive offense-versus-defense matchups in the Pac-12 this season – few teams pass the ball as often and as well as the Cougars, and few teams defend the pass as well as the Huskies.
Washington ranks second in the Pac-12 in pass defense efficiency rating, second in completion percentage allowed and second in passing yards allowed per game, and the Huskies have allowed fewer touchdown passes (eight total) than any conference team.
Starting a secondary that included Budda Baker and Kevin King at safety, and Sidney Jones and converted receiver John Ross III at cornerback, the Huskies held WSU scoreless for 50 minutes in last season’s 31-13 victory in sub-freezing Pullman temperatures.
It was coach Chris Petersen’s first Apple Cup, and it was never close in the second half. UW led 31-0 in the fourth quarter. Huskies coaches credited the team’s pass rush, which sacked Falk four times and otherwise hurried him.
That component will be key again on Friday. WSU has allowed more sacks (35) than all but nine FBS teams, though the Cougars have also attempted more passes than any team in the country. They also might again play without starting left tackle Joe Dahl, who has missed WSU’s last three games with an apparent injury. Starting center Riley Sorenson missed last week’s game against Colorado, and his status for Friday is also uncertain.
The Huskies could be aided by the return of sophomore nose tackle Elijah Qualls, who has missed the team’s last three games with an ankle injury.
UW defensive line coach Jeff Choate, a former assistant under Leach at WSU, said Tuesday that Qualls has been practicing, “and I think you’re going to see him in the game.”
He also hopes to see an effort similar to last season’s game against WSUs wide splits on the offensive line.
“When they’re in their vertical pass sets, you’ve got to resist the temptation to do a whole lot of dancing,” Choate said. “I tell our guys all the time, ‘don’t cha-cha.’ We’ve just got to get into our man and hit our fit. Don’t worry about being fancy in pass rush. It’s just about collapsing the pocket and doing a good job of keeping it dirty.”
And Lake said nothing changes for UW’s defense if Falk can’t play and is replaced by backup Peyton Bender, a redshirt freshman who has appeared in four games this season. He threw for 133 yards, a touchdown and an interception in place of Falk last week.
“If Falk plays, he’s going to try to throw for a billion (yards),” Lake said. “If he doesn’t, we’re fully expecting this other guy, Bender, to come in there and just pick up where the last quarterback left off. It’s a really great scheme. They do an awesome job of coaching those guys. It’s going to be a big challenge.”
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