University of Washington

Can WSU break UW’s defensive hold or will it be more of the same?

Washington State quarterback Luke Falk, who is the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer, has not had much success in the Apple Cup against Washington.
Washington State quarterback Luke Falk, who is the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer, has not had much success in the Apple Cup against Washington. jbessex@gateline.com

Washington, at some point this season, have either faced a skilled quarterback, a dynamic running back or a unique receiver with size.

Most opposing offenses have one or the other. Maybe two at best. Washington State, however, has all three to choose from.

Those options could help the Cougars (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) against the Huskies (9-2, 6-2) in this year’s Apple Cup at 5 p.m. Saturday.

WSU is riding two unfavorable streaks in this series. The first is a four-game losing streak with the second being the inability to surpass scoring 17 points against the Huskies.

Considering the Cougars have the right mix, could this be the year the Apple Cup trophy heads east to Pullman?

“They throw the ball all over the place. Their quarterback (Falk) is really good and he knows that offense inside and out,” Huskies defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. “He gets the ball out on time. They don’t really care. They just keep coming after you.

“It’s a big-time challenge because the ball comes out so quick.”

Cougars senior quarterback Luke Falk can pick apart a secondary. He’s thrown for 3,224 yards, 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Falk is also completing 66.8 percent of his passes.

He’s the Pac-12’s all-time leader in passing yards yet Falk has struggled in previous encounters against the Huskies.

As a first-year starter in 2014, he threw for 355 yards and two touchdowns but also had two interceptions in a 31-13 loss.

Falk missed the 2015 Apple Cup with a concussion. In 2016, he passed for 269 yards and a touchdown — but also had three interceptions.

WSU’s Air-Raid offense will always generate a high volume of attempts. One thing that could help Falk is how he spreads the ball around.

Running backs Jamal Morrow and James Williams don’t run much. They’ve combined for 170 carries, which is 13 fewer than UW’s Myles Gaskin with 183.

Morrow and Williams’ value comes as receivers. Williams has 59 receptions which is the second-most on the team. Morrow’s 46 catches are tied for fourth.

“It’s about the timing, spacing and they get the ball to their guys in space,” Kwiatkowski said. “Running backs get the ball in space and make guys miss. So we gotta do a good job tackling.”

Another thing to consider, especially as it relates to the Huskies, is how the Cougars use their receivers to hog possession.

UW’s defense looked shaky in consecutive games against Stanford and Utah. The Cardinal held onto the ball for more than 36 minutes. It kept the Huskies’ defense on the field for an extended period of time and resulted in Stanford going 10 for 18 on third downs.

The Utes tried a similar approach. Utah held possession for nearly 32 minutes. Despite going 5 for 15 on third downs, the Utes were 3 for 3 on fourth downs.

WSU is ninth in average time of possession at 33 minutes and 32 seconds.

“They do a good job on time of possession because they get third downs and keep drives alive,” Kwiatkowski said. “It’s ball control, high percentage throws and guys catch it and on third down ... conversely, we have to do a good job on third down to get off the field.”

UW must also find a way to somehow limit WSU receivers Tavares Martin Jr. and Isaiah Johnson-Mack.

Martin, an athletic receiver with speed, is 6-foot-1 and 183 pounds. Johnson, who is the more physical target, is 6-3 and 216 pounds. Both fit the mold of of a bigger receiver who could torment UW’s smaller cornerbacks for another week.

“It’s such a unique offense. ... They can plug guys in and they just run their scheme,” Huskies defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. “It doesn’t matter who’s out there. They’re running their scheme, they’re running their route. But then you plug in guys ... with some talent ... that makes this offense even harder to cover.”

Martin and Johnson, who were high school teammates in South Florida, have given the Cougars a consistent 1-2 punch which could be formidable this Apple Cup.

The Huskies have struggled the past two weeks against sizable receivers. Stanford’s J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who is 6-3 and 222 pounds, bullied the secondary for five catches and 130 yards. Utah’s Raelon Singleton, who is 6-3 and 212 pounds, had five receptions for 81 yards and two touchdowns.

Martin leads WSU with 65 receptions for 769 yards and nine touchdowns while Johnson has chipped in with 57 catches for 530 yards and five touchdowns.

“Every single week, all year long, we’ve had big receivers. Starting with Rutgers, we’ve had big receivers,” Lake said. “So this isn’t a new thing. All year long ... they’re all 6-1, 6-2 and 6-3 and we have to make plays on the football.”

Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark

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