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November 23, 2012

Apple Cup Preview




Washington is a two touchdown favorite in Friday's Apple Cup against Washington State (12:30 p.m., FOX) but upsets can happen and that's why the game will be played.

Many will be surprised that the Huskies aren't an even bigger favorite in the regular-season finale for both teams.

After all, Washington (7-4, 5-3) is riding a four-game winning streak and playing their best football of the season. Meanwhile, Washington State (2-9, 0-8) has failed to be even competitive in most of their games. They hold the distinction of being the only Pac-12 team to lose to Colorado, the team the Huskies defeated 38-3 on the road last week.

Series Record - Washington leads 67-31-6
Sarkisian's Record vs. WSU - 3-0

This one will be played in Pullman where Washington has won six of the past eight meetings between the two schools.

It won't take Washington's best effort of the season, but the Huskies can expect to see the Cougars' best. This is their bowl game and their last chance to generate some positive momentum heading into the offseason and ultimately next season.

Now, let's meet the Cougars.

Offense

Mike Leach was hired to put an offense on the field that would race up and down the field and light up the scoreboard. That hasn't happened yet.

Perhaps he should be forgiven. His system would seem to take a while to install. He doesn't have his recruits in the program yet, either.

But the Cougars' offense has been bad. They have rushed for exactly 30.0 yards per game, some of which is due to 53 sacks their quarterbacks have taken this year, and some is due to the fact that they have only tried to run it 228 times.

It looks like the starting quarterback will be Jeff Tuel as Connor Halliday is sidelined with an injury. Washington fans are very familiar with the 6-foot-3, 221-pound senior.

Tuel came onto the scene as a freshman, starting five games, and he was the Cougars' lone starter during his sophomore year. But last season collarbone injury issues kept him out of commission for much of the year and this year Halliday has simply performed better.

It will take the best game of Tuel's career for the Cougars to pull the upset. This year he's been the more accurate passer for Leach's squad but he hasn't hit on many big plays or put much pressure on opposing defenses. Part of the problem has been a lack of skill position weapons.

Marquess Wilson's absence on the outside has created an even bigger void at receiver and nobody has stepped up. And the running backs, Teondray Caldwell and Carl Wilson, haven't been nearly as involved in the passing game as Leach would probably like them to be.

Redshirt freshman Dominique Wilson has come on strong with 26 receptions for 403 yards (15.5) and three scores, and he's one of the Cougars' best big-play threats. And sophomore Bobby Ratliff has followed up a promising freshman campaign with another solid year, though the stat line is pretty similar.

The Cougars will play from the shotgun and the game plan will be as all Mike Leach game plans are -- find a rhythm in the passing game.

But this Washington State team has been defined by a lack of play makers at the skill positions and poor offensive line play. And to make matters worse, Tuel has just more than half as many touchdown passes as Halliday, even though the two have thrown a similar number of passes.

Still, the Cougars have the top-ranked passing offense in the Pac-12 and at times they will probably find some success through the air. The key for Washington will be tightening up in the red zone, preventing any big plays, and forcing turnovers. They should be able to get to Tuel.

You will probably see a lot of dime packages from Washington.

Defense

The Cougars surrender 440.2 yards and 34.2 points per game to their opponents.

Like Washington, the Cougars have introduced 3-4 concepts this year, and while that has given them more flexibility the results haven't always been good.

For a three-game stretch in the middle of the season there were some positive signs. Washington State gave up 19, 31 and 24 points to Oregon State, Cal and Stanford in consecutive games.

Since then the wheels have come off. In their last three games, against Utah, UCLA and Arizona State, the Cougars have given up 49, 44 and 46 points.

To their credit, opponents rush for 4.1 yards per attempt, which is not abhorrent. And Washington State has picked 14 passes, and they do have a couple of decent players in the secondary. And again, some of the defensive troubles have come because the offense has left the field quickly or in bad places.

Aside from linebacker Travis Long, who may not play Friday, the Cougars are woefully undersized at linebacker to be playing a 3-4 defense.

Expect a heavy dose of the ground game for the Huskies mixed in with plenty of play-action, and the offensive game plan should be a methodical one.

Prediction
Washington 34
Washington State 17


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