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Sports >  WSU football

Two-minute drill: Keys to victory for Washington State against No. 12 Washington

Nov. 25, 2022 Updated Fri., Nov. 25, 2022 at 6:10 p.m.

Story of the game …

Washington State (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) closes its regular season at home in frigid temperatures defending its Apple Cup trophy, looking to extend its three-game winning streak and seeking to improve its standing in the eyes of the bowl-selection committee.

No. 12 Washington (9-2, 6-2) is riding a five-game spree and hungry for payback after watching a sea of crimson storm the field at Husky Stadium last year. The Huskies made a major turnaround under first-year coach Kalen DeBoer after a four-win 2021 season and enter the final week of their 2022 season still narrowly alive for a bid to the Pac-12 title game.

The Cougars are two-point home underdogs for a rivalry matchup that will kick off at 7:30 p.m. at Gesa Field (ESPN).

“We got all these dudes ready to go take heads off, and you’re going to tell us to wait (until 7:30)?” WSU linebacker Daiyan Henley said. “C’mon now. I wish we could roll out of bed and get on the field. We’ll be ready when the time comes. When that first whistle blows, all bets are off. You go out there and make plays, have fun with your boys and destroy the other guys across from us.

“We don’t speak about them this week. We just know who they are.”

Henley will be one of 13 seniors honored before kickoff.

When Washington State has the ball …

In their past two games, the Cougars came out firing and had two of their hottest starts of the season, amassing 535 yards and 49 points combined in the first halves of wins against Arizona State and Arizona.

In the second halves of those games, WSU’s offense went quiet, totaling 175 yards and three points.

The Cougars’ offense could afford to slow down a bit against weaker opponents. But WSU probably can’t risk a similarly sluggish finish if it hopes to keep up with productive UW.

“We just gotta keep the accelerator on,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “That’s what it’s going to take to beat a really good football team.”

Dickert and quarterback Cameron Ward both acknowledged that WSU took a conservative approach after halftime to protect big leads. Ward raised his concerns this week to Dickert and offensive coordinator Eric Morris.

“I don’t think we have a reason to play conservative when we have two more games left,” Ward said. “It’s time to leave it all out there.”

It’s been a streaky season for the offense. But despite second-half issues in recent weeks, WSU’s ground game has improved tremendously and the Cougars are avoiding costly mistakes.

Buoyed by the return of starting tailback Nakia Watson earlier this month, the rushing attack is climbing up the Pac-12 rankings after sitting in last in each of the conference’s statistical categories for the majority of the year.

Watson rushed for 338 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 6.6 yards per carry, over the past three weeks.

“It’s opened a lot of things,” Ward said of the run game. “It’s allowed us to do more play action, trying to get more shots (downfield) as we go along. The biggest thing was just having that mindset that we’re going to reestablish the line of scrimmage. … Having Nakia back, he hasn’t been 100% healthy … him gutting it out and showing his ‘why’ for the team and showing he really wants to be here is a big thing.

“The O-line, they’ve been doing unbelievable the last couple of weeks in the run game. I feel like we’re going to have success running the ball.”

WSU’s ground game could set the tone against a defense that hasn’t been stellar against the run. UW ranks seventh in the Pac-12 in rushing yards allowed per game. The Huskies gave up more than 150 yards in two of the past three games, including 313 versus Oregon on Nov. 12.

UW’s passing coverage has seen its share of slip-ups, too. The Huskies rank 10th in the conference and 114th nationally in pass-defense efficiency rating. Their secondary was picked apart by UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (315 yards, three TDs) and Arizona QB Jayden de Laura (400 yards, four TDs).

Ward isn’t lighting up stat sheets, but he’s doing enough to kick-start the offense early in games and he’s making safe decisions. The sophomore transfer hasn’t tossed an interception since an Oct. 15 loss to Oregon State. In the past six games, he’s scored 11 touchdowns from scrimmage against two turnovers.

Offensive line play is the key against UW’s talented defensive front. The Huskies have totaled 29 sacks. Standout edge rushers Bralen Trice and Jeremiah Martin have combined for 13½ sacks. Unless they make unexpected changes to their depth chart, the Cougars will start freshmen Christian Hilborn and Fa’alili Fa’amoe at the tackle positions.

Veteran WSU receiver Renard Bell will be a “game-time decision” this weekend, Dickert said. Bell returned to the field last weekend after spending four weeks sidelined, but suffered an injury in the third quarter. Guard Ma’ake Fifita could be back in the lineup after sustaining an ankle injury Nov. 12 against Arizona State, but Dickert said he’d be saved for an “emergency” situation.

When Washington has the ball …

The Huskies boast the No. 1 passing offense in the country. The Cougars enjoy a consistent defense that has held the Pac-12’s top spot in points allowed (19.8 per game) for the past five weeks.

In Apple Cups of years past, UW usually fielded a strong defense that was capable of containing the Cougars’ prolific passing offense. Now, it’s the Huskies who are putting up big offensive numbers – averaging nearly 40 points per game – while WSU is confident in its ability to limit UW’s explosive aerial attack.

“It’s obvious that they have a good offense, and it’s obvious that we have a good defense,” WSU edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. said. “It’s making sure we do our job up front and execute the game plan. We know they’re going to pass the ball. That’s not a shocker to anyone.”

UW quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has surpassed all expectations in his first year as a Husky after transferring in from Indiana. He averages more than 40 passes per game and does so with efficiency, completing 67% of his attempts. Penix leads the FBS with 3,869 passing yards, and he’s surrounded by top receivers in Rome Odunze (931 yards, six TDs) and Jalen McMillan (890 yards, seven TDs).

“We can’t sleep on that,” edge rusher Brennan Jackson said. “It’s going to be really important to stop the run early on and when they get to passing downs, to be locked in on our coverages and make sure we get some pressure on this guy.”

The Huskies have surrendered just seven sacks and committed eight turnovers – good for second and sixth in the nation, respectively.

“Seven sacks in over 500 pass rushes,” Dickert noted. “We need someone to be able to beat these guys off the edge.”

WSU’s defense prides itself on disruptive play up front. The Cougars dial up blitzing packages to supply pressure. They recorded eight sacks over the past three games, boosting their sack total on the year to 29 – third in the Pac-12. WSU was one of the top turnover-forcing teams in the FBS last season and that identity is starting to resurface late this season. The Cougars totaled nine takeaways across their past three games, including four interceptions last weekend against Arizona . WSU’s defensive line got a push and the Cougars used exotic blitzes to rattle de Laura.

“They don’t really let a lot of guys get pressure on (Penix), because of how fast he releases the ball,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be very imperative on Saturday that when we have those opportunities, we’re making sure we’re pressuring him, getting him out of his reads, making him uncomfortable. … When he gets in a rhythm, he can be very dangerous. But when he gets off-schedule, when he feels pressure in his face, he can sometimes have lapses in judgment.”

The Cougars can’t overlook UW’s ground game, which has provided an adequate complement for Penix. Tailbacks Cameron Davis and Wayne Taulapapa have combined for 1,120 yards and 22 touchdowns.

Save a couple of down games, WSU’s rushing defense has been steady this season and enters the weekend ranked third in the Pac-12 with 119 yards allowed per game. The Cougars’ passing coverage had a solid outing against Arizona, which came into the game as a top-10 passing team in the country but struggled to sustain possessions. Dickert expects a veteran piece to return to the secondary this weekend. Senior safety Jordan Lee is likely to play after missing the past three games with an injury.

Did you know?

The 2022 edition of the Apple Cup is shaping up to be entertaining. Years ending in “2” have produced some of the more memorable matchups in Apple Cup history.

• In 2012, the Cougars completed an improbable comeback against the 25th-ranked Huskies in Pullman. WSU trailed by 18 points at the start of the fourth quarter, but rallied to tie the game with two minutes remaining. WSU defensive lineman Kalafitoni Pole picked off UW QB Keith Price at the start of overtime, setting up a short field goal for a 31-28 Cougars win to cap a 3-9 season under first-year coach Mike Leach, who never won the Apple Cup again. The 2012 game was WSU’s most recent win over UW in Pullman.

• In 2002, the Cougars and Huskies traded field goals in a triple-overtime thriller in Pullman. UW took the lead with a 49-yarder in the final OT, then backup WSU QB Matt Kegel – playing in relief of injured starter Jason Gesser – threw a ball that was controversially ruled a backward pass. UW pounced on it to seal a 29-26 result and deny WSU’s chances of a Rose Bowl return. Husky supporters stormed the field and many upset Cougars fans tossed debris onto the field during a chaotic postgame scene.

• In 1992, WSU scored one of the most celebrated wins in program history, topping fifth-ranked UW 42-23 at Martin Stadium in a game that has come to be known as the “Snow Bowl.” Unfazed by the blizzard and a heavily favored opponent, the Cougars scored 29 consecutive points in the third quarter behind QB Drew Bledsoe in his final home game at WSU.

• In 1982, the Cougars hosted an Apple Cup game in Pullman for the first time in 28 years and pulled off a monumental upset. WSU, an 18-point underdog that had won two games up to that point , erased a 10-point halftime deficit and stunned the fifth-ranked Huskies, knocking UW out of Rose Bowl contention. It was WSU’s first Apple Cup win in nine years.

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