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WSU-UW: Huskies young secondary steals show in Apple Cup

Huskies Kevin King, left, and Cory Littleton team up to tackle Cougars receiver Robert Lewis during first-half action on Saturday in Pullman. (Associated Press)
Huskies Kevin King, left, and Cory Littleton team up to tackle Cougars receiver Robert Lewis during first-half action on Saturday in Pullman. (Associated Press)

PULLMAN – After a season’s worth of growing pains, Washington’s young defensive backs were fully rewarded Saturday night.

With two sophomores and a pair of true freshmen starting in the secondary, the Huskies repeatedly shot down Washington State’s Air Raid offense in a 31-13 Apple Cup win at chilly Martin Stadium.

In other words, it was easy sledding for the young Pups.

“Heck, they didn’t even score until the fourth quarter, and that was a busted play,” sophomore cornerback John Ross said after the game.

Convincing as it was, it didn’t happen overnight for a unit long on talent but short on experience.The Huskies were torched by FCS Eastern Washington for 475 yards and seven touchdown passes back on Sept. 6, and endured rough outings against nationally-ranked Oregon and UCLA.

Yet they were coldly efficient against the Cougars, giving up 355 yards passing but intercepting three passes and holding the Cougars to a season-worst 1-for-10 performance on third down.

Already plus-10 in turnover margin going into the Apple Cup, the Huskies got three more takeaways while giving up one interception.

“Now we got 10, 11 games under our belt,” said sophomore safety Kevin King, who snagged one of the Huskies’ two interceptions. “Once you get the experience part, the coaches are putting us in good position with the calls and everything.

“And everyone’s doing a better job,” King said.

With the help of steady pressure from their front seven, the defensive backs rose to the biggest occasions in a first half that ended with the Huskies leading 14-0.

• As WSU faced fourth-and-2 at the Husky 42, Luke Falk’s pass to River Cracraft was broken up by linebacker John Timu.

• On fourth-and-5 at the UW 32 in the second quarter, Ross defended Falk’s pass to Isiah Myers.

By intermission, the Cougars were 1 for 6 on third down, 0 for 3 on fourth down and looking overmatched on almost every down.

“We expected to be physical and stop the pass,” Ross said.

Mission accomplished. While WSU coach Mike Leach has blamed his own young secondary for its lapses this season, the Huskies have steadily gained traction against a difficult schedule – and difficult circumstances.

As the promise of a 4-0 start faded to 7-5, the secondary lost its best player when NFL-caliber cornerback Marcus Peters was dismissed from the team.

At that point, coach Chris Petersen moved Ross – at that point one of the Huskies’ top receivers – into the secondary. “It’s been a fun process for me to experience both sides of the ball, I look forward to doing a lot of this next year too,” Ross said.

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