The Apple Cup has been the “favorite game of the year” for the UW defense, which has shut down the Air Raid offense four years in a row.
The Apple Cup has been the Huskies’ favorite game of the year, every year, for the past five years.
That, at least, is what co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake labeled it in 2016 as he excitedly walked off the Martin Stadium field following Washington’s 45-17 beatdown of the Cougars in Pullman.
As the No. 16 Huskies (8-3, 6-2 Pac-12) prepare to return to Pullman for Friday’s 111th Apple Cup, the matchup against the No. 7 Cougars (10-1, 7-1) and their “Air Raid” offense remains a welcome challenge for UW’s secondary in particular.
“Yeah, it is. It is because a lot of teams are supposed to throw the ball, and then they don’t do it against us for some reason,” UW senior cornerback Jordan Miller said. “But Wazzu always does. That’s not a knock on them; it’s just that they do throw the ball. So we love the competition and love the idea that we get to compete.”
Here are three trends in the Huskies’ recent defensive dominance of the Cougars:
1. Limit the big plays
In four games against Washington State with Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski as UW’s defensive coordinators, the Huskies have forced 18 turnovers and sacked WSU quarterbacks 14 times.
Just as there are no secrets with what the Cougars will do on offense — they will stretch the field horizontally with quick passes and force defenders to tackle one-on-one in space — UW’s defensive formula isn’t overly complicated either. Simply put, the Huskies want to keep the ball in front of them at all times.
And even as they’ve created big plays of their own — notably scoring three defensive touchdowns in the 2015 Apple Cup — the Huskies have also excelled at limiting explosive plays. In the past four games against UW, the Cougars have just five plays that have covered 30 yards or more, and not one of those went for more than 39 yards.
That again has been a strength for the UW defense this season. In 11 games, the Huskies have allowed just 29 plays of 20 yards or more, which ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 5 nationally; and they haven’t allowed a single play of 40 yards or more in Pac-12 play this season, something no one else in the conference can say.
The Cal Bears had a similar defensive plan when they went to Pullman earlier this month and nearly pulled off the upset, holding the Cougars to a season-low 19 points. The Cougars’ longest offensive play that day: 29 yards.
“They made them earn it,” Kwiatkowski said of Cal.
2. Pressure the QB
The Huskies often rushed only three defenders, and they rarely blitz. UW’s sack numbers are down this season — and down dramatically — and it’s telling that free safety Taylor Rapp continues to lead the team with four sacks.
Still, the Huskies’ success in the Apple Cup has been predicated on rushing just three or four defenders while dropping seven or eight defenders into coverage. And that, ideally, is what they would like to do again Friday.
“Any time you blitz these guys,” Kwiatkowski said Tuesday, “you’re playing with fire.”
The Cougars have allowed just nine sacks this season, and Kwiatkowski credited an improved WSU offensive line and QB Gardner Minshew for his ability to feel pressure and, when in trouble, release quick passes to running backs in the flat.
“He can move around. He runs better than (Luke) Falk,” Kwiatkowski said. “But if you watch all the tapes, the offense is what it is. They want to sit in there and they want to throw the ball down the field. It’s up to us to try to get him off his spot and make him run around so he has to throw with his feet moving.”
There will be subtle tweaks with UW’s defensive plan for Friday but nothing drastic, Kwiatkowski said.
“Everybody’s seen what we’ve done the last four years. We do what we do,” he said. “… And they do what they do. It’s always going to come down to players executing. Obviously, we prepare them and we have to have them ready to execute. Tackling, being physical, forcing turnovers, being around the quarterback. If we can’t sack him because they’re that good, then we’ve got to be right there. Make him feel it. And hopefully force him into some bad decisions.”
3. Red zone stops
During the Chris Petersen era, the Huskies have outscored the Cougars a combined 90-13 in the first half since 2014.
Two years ago in Pullman, the Cougars twice drove inside UW’s 10-yard line in the first half and both times came away with no points. UW’s defense stuffed a fourth-and-goal run at the 1-yard line and DJ Beavers intercepted Falk in the end zone at the end of the half. (In the second half, the Huskies again stuffed the Cougars on a fourth-and-goal situation.)
Again, Cal had success slowing down the WSU offense in the red zone on Nov. 3, forcing the Cougars to twice settle for field goals and benefiting from a WSU missed field goal on a third field-goal attempt.
“All our guys are just preparing right now to try to keep these guys in front of us,” Lake said last year, and the formula remains the same. “We know they’re going to get their yards. They’re going to get their yards. They do every single year. We just have to keep them out of the end zone.”