Being scared of a team that has four wins in 11 games this season is not common. Especially one that has recently lost its starting quarterback to injury. But this is the Apple Cup, and the Washington Huskies (6-5) should in fact be a bit wary of their arch-rival Washington State Cougars.
For one thing, the Dawgs are not an imposing team in their own right. Let’s affirm that fact.
Secondly, UW is reeling, coming off a 38-21 defeat at the hands of lowly Oregon State—their fourth loss in five games. After a blistering 5-1 start, the Huskies have huddled back in the middle of the pack and are struggling to establish themselves as more than an average squad.
A loss to the Cougars in the Apple Cup would leave the Huskies with a trite 6-6 record heading into a lower-tiered bowl game that would likely garner little interest, even amongst UW fans.
Not to mention the fact that the Huskies are equally unsure about their starting quarterback for this weekend’s game. Keith Price is reported to be healthy enough to start, but he shouldn't be regarded as at 100 percent—he has battled leg injuries all year.
All of this gloominess up in the Pacific Northwest means that the matchup against the Cougs at CenturyLink Field in Seattle is going to be a tough one for the Huskies. Considering the intensity of this bitter rivalry, it would give the Cougars great pleasure to knock the Huskies back to .500.
It’s a classic case of WSU playing with a nothing-to-lose mentality; that attitude could lead to a Huskies’ collapse on Saturday.
So how should Washington prepare themselves for this challenging game? How do they end their regular season on a high note?
It starts with UW coach Steve Sarkisian re-motivating his Dawgs. Their confidence as a team cannot be high right now. After being espied in the Top 25 heading into their game against Stanford last month, the Huskies are now disappointingly close to being mediocre. Sarkisian needs to get his team’s mindset back on the right path.
Not that the Apple Cup isn’t motivation by itself, but it’s imperative that the Huskies stay hungry and not let the Cougars out of their sights. The answer starts with a heavy diet of running back Chris Polk.
The Cougars rank eighth in the conference rushing defense at 158.6 yards per game. To protect Price and any errors in the passing game, the Huskies need to pound the football on the ground.
Establishing an advantage in the battle of time possession is important for UW, especially for this game on a neutral field. Under Sarkisian, the Huskies have won only five of their 17 games away from Husky Stadium; it’s crucial for them to get the running game working early.
Fortunately for Price’s return to the starting lineup, the Cougars pass defense is even worse and the junior quarterback should feel comfortable in and around the pocket. WSU ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in sacks with only 16 in 10 games. Price should be able to maneuver with ease and pick apart the Cougar secondary.
On the flip side, WSU is even more lethal in the passing game, ranking second in the Pac-12 at 320.4 yards per game. Sophomore wideout Marquess Wilson leads the conference in receiving yards and has 10 touchdown receptions on the season.
In total, three Cougar wide receivers rank in the top 12 in receptions and yardage. The Huskies would ordinarily have a hard time corralling the Cougars receiving corps; thankfully for UW, they won’t have to face both quarterback Connor Halliday, who will miss the game due to a lacerated liver, and receiver Isiah Barton, who tore his ACL against Utah.
Obviously, this favors the Huskies’ porous 11th-ranked passing defense, but in an Apple Cup rivalry in a neutral stadium, anything is possible. What is mandatory for the Huskies is to not overlook the strong and determined Washington State squad looking to halt their own two-game losing streak in the series.
Remember, the Huskies are still young pups who are trying to find their footing and become a consistent winning team—but we all know that Cougars like to prey on the youngsters, so the Huskies better be careful how they present themselves this weekend. Otherwise, they could truly be taken advantage of by WSU.