Rarely has an Apple Cup had so much at stake.
Washington and Washington State have met 109 times and usually only one of those programs has something significant still in reach. This year is different.
The Huskies (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) are out of the Pac-12 North race but still have a shot at capturing the 11th, 10-win season in program history. The Cougars (9-2, 6-2) are a win away from reaching the Pac-12 Championship Game and having their first 10-win season since 2003. It’s what makes the 5 p.m. Saturday kickoff at Husky Stadium an appealing match up.
Here’s a few things to keep an eye on.
ON THE DEFENSIVE
Make no mistake. This could be the best defense the Huskies will face this year
So often the narrative revolves around the Pac-12’s inability to play defense. Just not this season. UW is ranked fourth in total defense and WSU is the No. 11 unit in the nation.
Exactly how rare is this? For the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference, it’s an annual occurrence. As for the Pac-12, this could be a record year.
The conference has not had two defenses finish in the Top 11 since at least the 2008 season.
UW is fifth against the run and eighth in defending the pass. WSU is 13th against the pass and 28th versus the run this season.
The Huskies have allowed 14.5 points per game while the Cougars are allowing 22.9.
Junior Hercules Mata’afa is one of the driving forces behind WSU’s success. His 9.5 sacks are tied for seventh in the nation and Mata’afa’s 21.5 tackles for loss are the third-most in college football.
It could be argued sophomore safety Jalen Thompson is the defense’s most active player. He leads Wazzu with 63 tackles and his four interceptions are tied for 10th nationally. Thompson also has three fumble recoveries.
What does it all mean for UW? The offensive line has protected Jake Browning this season. UW has only allowed 15 sacks which is tied for 24th. Browning has a tendency to keep plays alive which has helped or hindered the Huskies at times.
Thompson gives WSU flexibility in the secondary. He can takeaway a receiver or do enough to throw off Browning’s timing to make him hesitate while scouring the field. If Browning takes a bit too much time evaluating, he could quickly feel the pressure generated by Mata’afa and the Cougars’ front.
SIZE AND SPEED COULD BENEFIT FALK AND CHALLENGE UW’S SECONDARY
Stop if you’ve heard this before. A Washington-based Pac-12 quarterback’s passing numbers have taken a hit in the last year.
Cougars star Luke Falk is still among the nation’s passing leaders. He’s thrown for 3,224 yards and 29 touchdowns while completing nearly 67 percent of his passes.
Falk ranks 12th nationally in passing yards but is still more than 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns short of what he did in 2016.
WSU isn’t throwing as much but Falk still has two strong receivers with Tavares Martin and Isaiah Johnson-Mack.
Martin is a 6-foot-1 and 183-pound receiver who can do it all. He’s third in the conference with 65 catches, seventh with 769 yards and tied for second with nine touchdowns.
He has the reliability of a possession receiver, the speed needed to be a problem and has the experience to know what to do against Pac-12 cornerbacks in certain situations.
Then there is Johnson-Mack. At 6-3 and 216 pounds, he is one of the more physically gifted receivers in the Pac-12.
Johnson-Mack accounted for 57 receptions for 530 yards and five touchdowns. Martin is still the go-to option but Johnson-Mack presents what could be a dangerous alternative for the Huskies.
Defending bigger receivers became a priority for UW in the last two games. Stanford’s J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who is 6-foot-3, took advantage of UW’s smaller cornerbacks by finishing with five catches for 130 yards. Utah’s Raelon Singleton, who is also 6-3, grabbed two touchdowns a week later.
Singleton’s touchdowns were against Byron Murphy. The 5-11 and 175-pound cornerback was making his return after a lengthy absence due to injury. Murphy, despite a rusty performance, gives the Huskies much needed size. Corners Myles Bryant and Austin Joyner, while venerable, are shorter corners who’ve struggled to contain bigger receivers.
Huskies coach Chris Petersen said late Saturday that Murphy was coming off one week of practice before their game against the Utes.
Look for Murphy to be one of the players responsible for defending either Martin or Johnson-Mack.
TIME KEEPS ON TICKING
Could Wazzu follow a similar approach to what Stanford and Utah did against UW in recent games?
It’s possible considering WSU had a bye and enough time to study what opposing teams have done to make life difficult for UW over the last two weeks.
Stanford gobbled time off the clock which kept the UW defense on the field and limited the offense’s possessions in the Huskies’ 30-22 loss.
A week later, Utah tried to follow a similar formula. It was enough to help the Utes hold a 30-23 lead with 10:52 left only to lose 33-30 on a last-second field goal.
WSU’s offense is one of the greedier groups when it comes to time of possession. The Cougars hold the ball for an average of 33 minutes and 32 seconds per game which is good enough for eighth nationally.
Something else to watch is how WSU operates on third down.
The Cardinal went 10 of 18 which helped them wear down the Huskies’ defense. The Utes were only 5 for 15 on third but were 3 for 3 on fourth down.
WSU has converted 42.2 percent of the time on third down. It’s good enough for 45 and a few spots below Stanford at 38.
Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark