WSU-Washington preview: Who will take the Pac-12 North?
In our 50 biggest questions heading into the 2016 season, we thought the Apple Cup would be a de facto Pac-12 North championship game and that prediction has held true. The Pac-12 North division and a berth in the Pac-12 Championship game are both coming down to the Apple Cup between the Washington Huskies and the Washington State Cougars. Both teams have rosters filled with talented players and quarterbacks who are both ranked in our top 10 nationally. Here is what to expect when each team has the ball in the Apple Cup.
When Washington State has the ball
The Mike Leach offense is known for it’s pass-first mentality but Washington State’s success this year has come largely as a result of their productive ground game being able to serve as a counter-punch to their high-powered passing attack. They have three talented running backs who are capable of making people miss in James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks.
Williams has been the most difficult of the trio to tackle and his 146.5 elusive rating ranks No. 2 among Power-5 running backs. While the offensive line has made some big holes in the run game the Cougars are still a pass-first offense that largely only runs when they have a numbers advantage to one side of a defense. The Washington State offensive line has been performing at a very high level all season long as pass protectors, and as a unit currently ranks No. 2 in pass blocking efficiency in the Power-5. The players are all talented in their own right but they are also greatly aided by the design of Mike Leach’s offense. The distance between each of the offensive linemen is so wide that it makes it easier for them to tell where rushers are coming from, and the quick passes mean they don’t have to sustain their blocks for a long time.
It will be important to see where the Huskies’ pass rush comes from as they lost their best pass-rusher Joe Mathis to injury. Washington’s three-headed monster at defensive tackle — Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines and Vita Vea — are all NFL-caliber players but the Huskies should find it hard to get to Luke Falk due to a combination of Washington State’s scheme, Washington State’s talent on the offensive line and Washington’s lack of edge-rushers. Luke Falk’s accuracy percentage of 78.4 is currently No.4 in FBS, so he can pick a team apart. If the Cougars can keep Falk clean then their offense should be able to put up points and make this a very close game.
When Washington has the ball
Washington is a more balanced offense than Washington State. The Huskies will feature a more committed approach to running the ball with Myles Gaskin than the Cougars’ opportunistic rushing attack. Gaskin is a quick and shifty runner who has forced 40 missed tackles on the year. In the Huskies’ passing attack, quarterback Jake Browning to speedy wide receiver John Ross will be the connection to watch as they are capable of connecting deep and scoring in a hurry. Jake Browning’s 49.2 deep passing accuracy percentage ranks No. 11 in FBS and they will intentionally look to take deep shots with Ross. One thing to keep an eye on is if Browning is getting enough velocity on his post routes and go routes, as Ross has had to slow up and wait on passes over the past few games. Ross is currently No.3 among Power-5 wide receivers with a 3.44 yards per route run and is a phenomenal threat to score every time he touches the ball.
The Huskies’ other receivers are talented as well — the diminutive and explosive Chico McClatcher has a 3.98 yards per route run mark which ranks No. 2 in FBS just ahead of Ross. Dante Pettis, while not as fast as Ross, is very elusive and is a big-play threat himself both as a receiver and a punt returner. The defender the Huskies will have to watch out for the most is defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa who is undersized but highly productive and never stops attacking the ball. Mata’afa’s pass rushing productivity rating of 11.5 ranks No. 8 among Power-5 defensive tackles and he must be accounted for by the Huskies. The Cougars’s defense will look to make last-second gap shifts right before the snap to try and confuse the Huskies’ offensive linemen and to make up for the Cougars’ lack of size up front.
Matchup to watch
Washington State’s Gabe Marks versus Washington’s Sidney Jones
Gabe Marks is the Cougars’ most talented wide receiver and a leader for the team and the leading receiver in the history of the Pac-12 conference. Marks has NFL ability to beat press and to track deep passes. Sidney Jones is one of the elite cover corners in the nation and a future NFL player as well. Marks is always lined up on the right side of the offense so it will be interesting to see how the Huskies play Marks. Will they keep Sidney Jones on that one side the entire game and try to take Marks away or will they mix it up and put different defenders on him? Luke Falk has a 125.6 QB rating when throwing at Marks and opposing quarterbacks have 26.2 QB rating when throwing into Sidney Jones’s coverage so something has to give. The player who makes the most plays in this matchup should be a big factor in who wins the game.
Prediction: Washington pulls out a 35-31 road win.