University of Washington

Breaking down the Cactus Bowl

WASHINGTON HUSKIES (8-5, 4-5 in Pac-12) vs. OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS (6-6, 4-5 in Big 12)


Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.

TV: ESPN. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM



This has been a position of upheaval this season for the Cowboys, who are on their third starting quarterback because of injuries. True freshman Mason Rudolph is the guy now. He started OSU’s past two games and completed 32 of 60 passes for 554 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions, and he helped lead the Cowboys to bowl eligibility with a victory over Oklahoma. Cyler Miles had an up-and-down season for the Huskies — 66.7 completion percentage, 16 touchdowns and only three interceptions but few big plays and problems fumbling — but played his best toward the end of the year. His experience wins out here. Plus, Rudolph isn’t a runner, and Miles adds a different dimension with his legs.


Oklahoma State’s top rusher is Desmond Roland, a senior (171 carries, 647 yards, 10 touchdowns). But the Cowboys took a big hit with the loss of Tyreek Hill, a dynamic back who rushed for 534 yards and gained another 281 yards on 31 receptions. Hill was dismissed from the team Dec. 12 following his arrest for domestic violence. Meanwhile, the Huskies’ backfield is in its best shape of the season, with Dwayne Washington (5.5 yards per carry, 100 yards or more in each of UW’s past three games) taking over as the featured back, and Lavon Coleman and Deontae Cooper adding depth. And you never know when linebacker Shaq Thompson might make an appearance carrying the ball.


Brandon Sheperd (34 catches, 639 yards, four touchdowns) and David Glidden (40 catches, 568 yards, two touchdowns) highlight this group for the Cowboys. Similarly, the Huskies haven’t had a dominant receiver. Jaydon Mickens leads with 53 catches for 535 yards and three TDs, and John Ross III, the team’s second-leading receiver (yards-wise), now plays cornerback.


Cowboys coach Mike Gundy and OSU players believe this group improved toward the end of the year, but OSU’s total of 37 sacks allowed still ranks tied for 17th-worst in the country. And their running game has netted only 3.6 yards per carry, compared with 4.4 for the Huskies. UW hasn’t been outstanding up front — they have given up 26 sacks and haven’t always been effective in the running game — but they’re probably the better unit.


Oklahoma State has a great pass rusher in third-year sophomore defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, who was named first-team all-Big-12 after totaling 11 sacks and 17 tackles for loss. James Castleman is a big presence in the middle, too. But the Huskies have a pair of first-team All-Americans — Danny Shelton and all-time UW sacks leader Hau’oli Kikaha — plus Andrew Hudson, who rejuvenated his career as a senior and has 11.5 sacks.


The Cowboys start a senior (Josh Furman), a junior (Ryan Simmons) and a sophomore (Seth Jacobs) at their three linebacker positions, and they have been productive — the trio ranks second, third and fourth on the team in tackles, and Simmons and Furman both posted double-digit tackles for loss (TFL) totals. But UW has All-American Shaq Thompson and senior John Timu, who leads the team with 96 tackles and has returned two interceptions for touchdowns. Thompson and Timu have combined to score six defensive touchdowns. Travis Feeney has been playing better lately, too.


Oklahoma State ranks 113th nationally in passing yards allowed per game. Washington ranks 124th. But the Huskies allow 7.2 yards per pass attempt, compared with 7.8 for Oklahoma State, and the Cowboys allow a higher opponent passer rating. The Cowboys start a junior and a freshman at cornerback, and a senior and a sophomore at safety. The Huskies start two true freshmen and two sophomores. Tough call.


Both teams are solid in punt coverage, and their kick coverage numbers are similar, too. But again, Hill was Oklahoma State’s primary kick and punt returner, so his absence leaves a big hole on special teams. Meanwhile, UW has a dangerous kick return threat in Ross, and a solid punt returner in freshman Dante Pettis, both of whom have scored special teams touchdowns this sesaon. Plus, kicker Cameron Van Winkle is 20 for 23 on field goals, which is slightly better than OSU kicker Ben Grogan’s mark of 19 for 24.


The loss of Hill obviously will impact OSU’s offense, and the Huskies are looking forward to unleashing their vaunted pass rush against a true freshman quarterback making his third start. And it’s worth mentioning, as always, that the outcomes of bowl games tend to be determined, in part, by which team that most wants to be there. Both teams seem to be enjoying their experience in Arizona, so motivation likely won’t be an issue.


No doubt the Cowboys have some talent, but it seems the Huskies have more. And it just doesn’t seem like OSU will be quite dynamic enough offensively to combat UW’s front seven. Call it Washington 31, Oklahoma State 20.