University of Washington

Apple Cup Preview: UW’s linebackers vs. WSU’s linebackers

Washington junior linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven has gone from special teams standout to leading the team in tackles.
Washington junior linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven has gone from special teams standout to leading the team in tackles.

The Apple Cup could end up being a defensive battle and it could lead to linebackers on either side being busy.

Washington (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) and Washington State (9-2, 6-2) have made this year’s rivalry game a bit more fascinating.

UW is the No. 4 defense in college football while WSU is No. 11. Both teams possess elite defenses due in some part to how their linebackers have performed.

With The Apple Cup only a day away, the News Tribune continues to preview what the Cougars and Huskies have at each position group.


UW’s linebacking corps has been a presence throughout the year. It’s why The Huskies are fourth against the run, eighth at defending the pass and are tied for 10th with 33 sacks.

The rise of junior Ben Burr-Kirven has helped UW maintain its place among the nation’s best. He leads the Huskies with 72 tackles and also has three pass breakups which is tied for the most among the team’s linebackers.

Burr-Kirven has been so strong, he forced the Huskies’ coaching staff to find another role for Azeem Victor. A preseason All-American, the team indefinitely suspended Victor after he was arrested for driving under the influence.

Prior Victor’s suspension, the Huskies found cohesion between the trio of Burr-Kirven, Tevis Bartlett and Keishawn Bierria. Bierria is fifth on the team with tackles while Bartlett leads UW with 11 tackles for loss.


The talk about WSU’s defense this week has centered around Hercules Mata’afa and Jalen Thompson. Don’t sleep on linebacker Jahad Woods.

A redshirt freshman, Woods is second on the team with 59 tackles and third with 10.0 tackles for loss. He also has 2.5 sacks. He’s also on a bit of a streak having notched consecutive games of eight tackles before WSU took its bye week.

What might stand out most about Woods could be his ability to stay healthy. The Cougars lost senior linebacker Isaac Dotson for about a month to injury until he returned Nov. 11 against Utah.

The Cougars have also been without senior Peyton Pelluer, who is out with a foot fracture. Dealing with injuries has forced WSU to develop its depth and there’s been success considering Justus Rogers has 40 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss.


The edge here goes to UW. If WSU had a healthy allotment of linebackers, it’s likely the margin of difference is closer.

Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark