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Sports >  WSU football

First look: Strong Washington State defense and high-octane Washington passing offense collide in Apple Cup

Nov. 21, 2022 Updated Mon., Nov. 21, 2022 at 8:39 p.m.

Washington State edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. hoists the Apple Cup after the Cougars defeated Washington 40-13 on Nov. 26, 2021, at Husky Stadium in Seattle.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. hoists the Apple Cup after the Cougars defeated Washington 40-13 on Nov. 26, 2021, at Husky Stadium in Seattle. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

What is it? An intriguing edition of the Apple Cup, featuring a stalwart defense from Washington State (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) – riding a three-game winning streak and looking for a second straight victory in the rivalry series – and a high-octane passing game from 12th-ranked Washington (9-2, 6-2), which made a major turnaround this season under a first-year coach and is playing at its best down the stretch.

Where is it? Gesa Field in wintry Pullman. Early weather forecasts call for temperatures in the mid-30s with a 20% chance of snow.

When is it? Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where can I watch it? ESPN will carry the broadcast.

Who is favored? The Huskies opened as 2.5-point favorites.

How did they fare last week? WSU registered four interceptions against its former quarterback – Arizona’s Jayden de Laura – and led by as many as 25 points in the fourth quarter en route to a 31-20 win over the Wildcats in Tucson.

Facing one of the nation’s most-productive passers, WSU’s defense passed the test, holding de Laura in check and keeping the Wildcats out of the end zone until the fourth quarter.

“Arizona was the best passing offense we’ve faced up to this point. Now, the team we’re going to face this week is the top in the country,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said Monday during his weekly news conference. “There’s a lot of confidence. Our guys are communicating well. I think we’re staying on top (of receivers) and challenging routes.

“Four interceptions – I think there’s a confidence to it. But interceptions (result from) a lot of things. I thought we disrupted the passer. We didn’t allow him to step into throws. We got him a little antsy. I think it allowed us to go out there and make some of those (interceptions).”

WSU’s offense advanced downfield at a methodical pace in the first half, registering 244 yards and averaging 6 yards per play. But the Cougar Air Raid managed just 110 yards and gained 3.4 yards per play after intermission. The Cougs scored 10 points in the second half – cornerback Derrick Langford Jr. had a pick-6, and WSU chipped in a short field goal after the first of safety Sam Lockett III’s two interceptions.

“I gotta look back on the drawing board of myself and what I need to do to make sure we’re keeping the foot on the gas,” Dickert said Saturday. “Maybe that’s my defensive nature. Maybe it’s me holding (offensive coordinator Eric Morris) back. … That’s on me. I think our guys have done a good job. I’ll take some of that, too – slowing them down instead of keeping our foot on the gas.”

Over the past six games, the Cougars’ offense totaled 30 points in second halves. Excluding a defensive touchdown against Stanford, WSU piled up 84 points in the first halves of the past three games.

“We’re starting fast,” Dickert said Monday, “and we just gotta keep the accelerator on. I think that’s what it’s going to take to beat a really good football team here this Saturday.”

The Huskies scored their fifth consecutive victory, breezing past conference cellar-dweller Colorado 54-7 on Saturday night in Seattle.

Washington had little trouble slicing through the Buffs’ defense, piling up more than 500 yards. UW rushed for 280 yards and star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. had a light and efficient day, completing 19 of 31 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown. On average, Penix throws for 352 yards on 42 attempts per game.

Scouting the matchup

In years past, WSU boasted the nation’s most prolific passing game, and UW had a defense capable of containing the Cougs’ Air Raid. The Apple Cup foes have since traded identities.

Now, the Huskies enjoy the No. 1 passing offense in the country, and WSU is one of the Pac-12’s top defensive teams.

Penix leads the nation with 3,869 passing yards. He ranks 23rd in the FBS in completion percentage (66.7%). The junior Indiana transfer has thrown 26 touchdowns against six interceptions.

UW scores 39.8 points and averages 505.2 yards per game – both top-10 marks in the country. The Huskies have allowed just seven sacks – second nationally.

“Penix has given them just a shot of life,” Dickert said. “This guy is one of the most accurate passers I believe that I’ve seen in a long time, and he’s cutting it loose. They’ve thrown the ball over 500 times and he’s been sacked seven times. It’s incredible. Their offensive efficiency is top five in the country and it’s an extreme challenge, one that we’re excited for. I know we feel confident in what we can do.”

The Cougs have held the Pac-12’s top spot in scoring defense for the past five weeks. They allow 19.8 points per game, good for 23rd nationally.

WSU appears well-equipped to offer a challenge up front. The Cougars are third in the Pac-12 with 29 sacks. They tallied eight over the last three games after producing just three across the three games before.

The Cougs’ secondary is stocked with confidence coming off a commendable showing against Arizona. De Laura passed for 357 yards, but WSU picked him off four times in the second half, and the majority of his production came late in the game, with the Cougs comfortably ahead.

WSU has held seven opponents under 230 yards passing, including Southern California (190 yards), which ranks fourth nationally in passing offense. The Cougs own the Pac-12’s No. 3 pass-defense efficiency grade.

Penix is surrounded by young stars at the receiver positions in Rome Odunze (931 yards, six touchdowns) and Jalen McMillan (890 yards, seven touchdowns).

“(Odunze and McMillan) are really tough matchups with their length and their size and speed,” Dickert said. “It’ll still be (about) that game of pressure and dropping four, and finding different ways to affect (Penix) and get him off his spots.”

The Huskies lean on their passing game, opting to throw on 56% of their plays, but the tailback tandem of Cameron Davis and Wayne Taulapapa is dangerous in the red zone. The two have combined for 22 rushing touchdowns.

Defensively, UW is strong up front but is prone to lapses in the backfield. The Huskies have logged 29 sacks. Edge rushers Bralen Trice and Jeremiah Martin rank third and fourth in the Pac-12 with seven and 6½ sacks, respectively.

WSU’s offensive line is playing shorthanded and has endured some rough outings this year, but issues in the trenches haven’t been so glaring in recent weeks. WSU surrendered four sacks across the past three games and put together a solid three-game stretch on the ground, helping tailback Nakia Watson rush for 338 yards and five touchdowns on 51 carries.

“He’s just been different,” Dickert said of Watson. “I give him credit, because who knew how good he was going to be in space? Between the tackles, he’s been great, but (tacklers) have been missing him in space. In the pass game and protection, he’s been very solid.”

The Huskies yield 131.8 rushing yards per game – seventh in the conference. Their passing coverage is 10th in the Pac-12 and 114th nationally in efficiency rating. Although the Cougars’ aerial attack has experienced mixed results throughout the season, quarterback Cameron Ward is avoiding mistakes and stringing together consistent efforts. The sophomore has scored 11 touchdowns against two turnovers over the past six games. He’s gone four straight games without an interception.

With a win Saturday, WSU would log its first two-game Apple Cup winning streak since 2007-08 and improve its standing in the eyes of the bowl selection committee. UW still has an outside shot at qualifying for the Pac-12 title game.

What happened last time?

The Cougs snapped a seven-game Apple Cup skid, drubbing the Huskies 40-13 in Seattle on Nov. 26, 2021. WSU registered four interceptions – Spokane native Armani Marsh tallied two – and tailback Max Borghi capped his WSU career with a 129-yard, two-touchdown night.

Coug fans stormed the field at Husky Stadium and de Laura planted Ol’ Crimson at midfield. A day later, Dickert was promoted to permanent coach. He had guided WSU to a winning season and a rare Apple Cup victory while serving as acting coach.

The Huskies finished their season 4-8. They played the Apple Cup under interim coach Bob Gregory following the dismissal of head coach Jimmy Lake two weeks before.

Three days after the game, UW announced the hiring of coach Kalen DeBoer, who led Fresno State’s program for the 2020 and ’21 seasons. DeBoer revived UW, which opened its 2022 campaign with four consecutive wins before back-to-back losses to UCLA and Arizona State. The Huskies are unbeaten since suffering a stunner against the Sun Devils on Oct. 8. Their five-game spree included a thrilling 37-34 victory over then-No. 10 Oregon on Nov. 12.

Things to know

1. WSU is looking for its first home win over Washington since a 31-28 overtime victory in 2012. The Huskies hold a 74-33-6 advantage in the series. The Cougs have never won more than two Apple Cup games in a row, but they’ve claimed back-to-back wins over UW eight times – 2007-08, 2004-05, 1982-83, 1972-73, 1967-68, 1957-58, 1953-54 and 1929-30.

2. Star WSU linebacker Daiyan Henley earned an invite to the prestigious Senior Bowl showcase game, which will be held Feb. 4 in Mobile, Alabama. The Nevada transfer ranks second in the Pac-12 in both tackles (102) and tackles for loss (12).

“I appreciate you guys for welcoming me in with warm arms,” Henley told the Cougs after Dickert presented the honor Monday during a team meeting, which was captured by WSU’s social media team. “I love y’all … and without you all, I wouldn’t have had this invite, especially the defense. To be the top in the Pac, it wouldn’t be without all 11 and everybody else that helped us. … It’s a team effort and I appreciate you guys.”

3. It won’t be the first matchup between Dickert and DeBoer. The two competed against each other in four games during previous coaching stops. Dickert tutored safeties at Wyoming from 2017 to ’18 while DeBoer coordinated Fresno State’s offense. The Cowboys and Bulldogs met in both of those seasons. Fresno State won both games. Dickert oversaw defensive backs at Southeast Missouri State in 2012 while DeBoer served as OC at Southern Illinois. DeBoer’s Salukis won that one. Dickert instructed safeties at North Dakota State in 2010 – DeBoer’s first year as SIU’s OC. The Bison topped the Salukis that season. Dickert and DeBoer took similar routes up the coaching ladder. Dickert worked at seven smaller schools in rural locations before landing his first FBS job at Wyoming. DeBoer spent 11 years at NAIA Sioux Falls – he was the head coach in 2005-09 – before securing an FCS gig at SIU. He reached the FBS in 2014, landing Eastern Michigan’s OC position.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for coach DeBoer,” Dickert said, “a lower-level college coach like myself, coming up (the ranks).”

4. Dickert didn’t have an update Monday on the status of three injured players: receiver Renard Bell, guard Ma’ake Fifita and safety Jordan Lee. Bell returned to the lineup versus Arizona after missing four games with an arm injury, but the seventh-year senior left the field in the third quarter after seemingly reaggravating the injury. Fifita sustained an ankle injury Nov. 12 against Arizona State and watched from the sideline last weekend. Lee hasn’t played since suffering a lower-body injury Oct. 27 against Utah. Tight end Billy Riviere III missed the Arizona game with an illness. Dickert expects the starter to return for the Apple Cup.

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