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First look: WSU visits No. 4 Washington for final Apple Cup as Pac-12 game

Washington State Cougars running back Max Borghi (21) runs the ball in for a touchdown against the Washington Huskies during the second half of a college football game on Friday, Nov 26, 2021, at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Wash. WSU won the game 40-13  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Here is a first look at Washington State’s road game against No. 4 Washington on Saturday.

What is it?

Washington State, fresh off a blowout win over Colorado, will try to earn its sixth win and bowl eligibility with a win in a road test against No. 4 Washington in the 115th Apple Cup, the regular-season finale for both teams.

Where is it?

Husky Stadium in Seattle.

When is it?

Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. PST.

Where can I watch it?

Fox will broadcast the game.

Who is favored?

Washington was a 16.5-point favorite in most sportsbooks on Monday.

How did the Cougars fare last week?

WSU had no problem dispatching Colorado on Friday night, at one point scoring 42 straight points, turning a 56-14 win into a rout in the first half. Edge rusher Brennan Jackson recorded two scoops-and-scores, fellow edge RJ Stone Jr. logged two of his team’s five sacks and quarterback Cam Ward accounted for four touchdowns, helping the Cougars inch to within one win for bowl eligibility.

Washington State also registered 127 yards rushing, good for its second straight game eclipsing the century mark on the ground. Forty-seven of those came from running back Nakia Watson, who looked quicker than he had all season, at one point catching a pass in the flat and bursting into the red zone. That’s an important development for the Cougars, whose lack of a credible run game has foiled its offensive plans on several occasions this fall.

Sophomore wide receiver Leyton Smithson also got in on the action, taking a kickoff back 98 yards for a touchdown, the WSU’s first kickoff return for a score since Travell Harris did it in 2018. Smithson, mostly a contributor on special teams this season, gave WSU something it had lacked all season: a spark in the return game.

“We’d been looking for a guy that can just hit it,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said after the game, “and we felt like we had some opportunities kinda in that middle part of the year. Obviously Lincoln (Victor) got hurt, and then hammy (Isaiah Hamilton). We just felt confident in Leyton and the way he was practicing and what he was doing.”

Absent were a few players: Running back Leo Pulalasi, a true freshman who broke out in his team’s loss to Cal on Nov. 11, and redshirt freshman defensive back Javan Robinson, who announced his plans to enter the transfer portal the day before the game. Also out was top cornerback Chau Smith-Wade, who missed his fourth straight game with an injury.

Starting left tackle Esa Pole, who was carted off during the Cal game with what looked like an ankle/foot injury, missed the game. Everyday left guard Christian Hilborn shifted over to left tackle and redshirt sophomore Rod Tialavea played left guard. Tialavea surrendered one sack, while Hilborn was dinged for two quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.

But on Friday night, Washington State didn’t look much bothered by any of that. Redshirt freshman linebacker Buddah Al-Uqdah snared an interception, the first of his career, and the Cougars’ senior class made sure their final home Pac-12 game went down as a victory.

“Just proud of our players for staying the course,” Dickert said Monday. “When you really peel back the onion and look back at how we played, I mean, what a half of football, really in all three phases. The effort, the energy and just the focus from our guys – you could tell they wanted to play.”

Scouting Washington …

The 11-0 Huskies, who clipped then-No. 10 Oregon State on the road over the weekend, are in position to earn a College Football Playoff spot. They’re led by Heisman candidate quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who has used receivers Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk to create one of the country’s most lethal offenses, leading the nation in passing yards per game.

A spot in the Pac-12 championship game secured, Washington has looked the part of a national title contender on offense, where Penix leads the country in total yards with 3,695. Odunze ranks fifth nationwide in receiving yards, with 1,206, while running back Dillon Johnson (who is hopeful to play after sustaining a foot injury against Oregon State) has collected 879 yards to go with 11 touchdowns.

Those guys have Dickert’s attention – but so does another of the Huskies’ position group.

“This offensive line is incredible,” Dickert said of UW’s front five, which has allowed just three sacks all year, though Penix has taken eight himself. “(Troy Fautanu) is the best offensive lineman I’ve ever seen on tape – ever. So if we can affect him – not even sack him – try to move him off his spot is something that’s really important in this football game.”

If there’s anything resembling a hole in the Huskies’ armor, though, it’s on defense. On that side of the ball, UW has yielded these point totals in its past few games: 20 against Oregon State, 28 against Utah, 42 against USC, 33 against Stanford. Washington’s defense has graded as the fourth-best in the Pac-12, per PFF, and No. 49 in the country.

Part of UW’s problem on defense has been injuries. Senior Asa Turner recently had surgery, junior Kam Fabiculanan has been wearing a boot and junior linebacker Alphonzo Tuputala, UW’s fourth-best-graded defender, missed the Oregon State game with an injury.

Still, some of the Huskies’ standouts on that end include edge Bralen Trice, who has pocketed five sacks this year; linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio, who leads the team with 59 tackles; nickelback Mishael Powell, whose 89-yard pick-six keyed Washington’s comeback win over Arizona State on Oct. 21; and cornerback Jabbar Muhammad, who graded as PFF’s second-best cornerback nationwide for Week 12.

Toss in linebacker Carson Bruener, who made 10 stops in his group’s win over Oregon State, and you get a defense that’s holding up reasonably well considering its losses.

What happened last time?

In last season’s game in Pullman, Washington earned a 51-33 win, using a 16-0 fourth quarter to surge ahead for good. Penix racked up 485 yards through the air, outdueling Ward and his 322 yards, and the Cougars’ defense couldn’t prevent big plays, like Penix’s 75-yard strike to McMillan and Wayne Taulapapa’s 40-yard touchdown rush.

In the 2021 clash in Seattle, the Cougars ran away with a 40-13 win, weeks after Dickert assumed the interim head coaching position.