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Analysis: Washington employs familiar strategy to manufacture similar result against Washington State in 31-13 Apple Cup win

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 29, 2019

Washington State running back Max Borghi (21) is mobbed by Washington’s defense during the second half Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, at Husky Stadium in Seattle. UW won 31-13. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State running back Max Borghi (21) is mobbed by Washington’s defense during the second half Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, at Husky Stadium in Seattle. UW won 31-13. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

SEATTLE – There wasn’t a Shelton, a Qualls, a Vea or a Gaines playing on Washington’s defensive line Friday afternoon.

The Huskies still got all the pressure they needed, and then some.

UW isn’t as loaded up front with sure-fire NFL draft picks – at least not as loaded as years past – but that didn’t stop the Huskies from blasting through Washington State’s offensive line with three players. They harassed an Air Raid quarterback, stymied the Pac-12’s top scoring offense and beat the Cougars handily in the Apple Cup with a strategy that looked strikingly similar to the one they’ve used the previous six years.

WSU found the end zone first, but the Cougars didn’t get there again. Washington scored 31 of the game’s final 37 points to run off with a 31-13 victory in Seattle – the Huskies’ seventh straight in the annual intrastate rivalry game that’s been played 112 times since 1900.

The Cougars (6-6, 3-6) dropped to 1-7 in the Apple Cup under Mike Leach and failed to reach 20 points in a seventh straight game against the Huskies (7-5, 4-5), who entered the contest favored by eight points. WSU has averaged at least 23.3 points per game against every other team in the Pac-12 during Leach’s tenure and at least 30 against six of them, but the Cougars have managed to score just 14.6 per game gainst Washington – a figure that includes WSU’s 31-28 triumph in 2012.

“It’s real tough, it’s very frustrating losing to them multiple times,” WSU wide receiver Renard Bell said. “It’s just very annoying and irritating.”

If there’s anything more irritating for WSU than the losses themselves, it may be the margin by which they’ve come. During the seven-game skid, the Cougars have been defeated by an average of 21.2 points and haven’t played a one-score game since their most recent win over the Huskies.

WSU didn’t change much on offense, airing the ball out 62 times and running it 12, so UW didn’t tinker too much on defense. The Huskies usually sent only three defensive linemen rushing the quarterback while dropping eight players into pass coverage to follow four or five Cougars receivers.

“Well, I think they’re good players and also I thought they did a good job mixing in the blitz,” Leach said. “But I didn’t think they did consistently, but I think we didn’t execute consistently either. I think we played with nine more than we played with 11, which I think that was probably our single biggest problem.”

For the number of times Anthony Gordon has dropped back to throw the season – 138 more than anyone else in the country entering into the day – the Cougars had done a splendid job of keeping the redshirt senior quarterback upright, allowing just 13 sacks, or one for every 45 attempts.

But the Huskies reached Gordon every 12th time the QB dropped back to pass – five sacks in total – and a few of those came at key moments. UW’s lead was 14-10 in the second quarter when Gordon was drilled in the backfield by Ryan Bowman for a loss of 11 yards, then again on the next play by Joe Tryon for a loss of 8.

Richard Newton scored on a 1-yard run, putting the Huskies up 11. The Cougars still had an opportunity to close the gap before halftime when Gordon was pummeled by two purple jerseys for his fourth sack, and followed with an ill-advised pass that was picked off by Elijah Molden.

“They play little games up there with those three guys, twists and all that,” said Gordon, who finished 48-of-62 passing with 308 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions in his first and only Apple Cup. “They’re a talented group, and hats off to them, they played hard.”

Gordon has thrown multiple interceptions in five games this season, but the Apple Cup was the first time the national passing leader went four full quarters without a touchdown pass. The redshirt senior went 9 of 10 on his first series and the Cougars capped the drive with Max Borghi’s 1-yard touchdown plunge. Their next five trips into the red zone produced two field goals from Lou Groza Award finalist Blake Mazza and nothing more.

“We just squandered a bunch of opportunities, fell behind the chains a few times, and they’re too good of a defense to fall behind the chains,” Gordon said. “Part of our success during the game, when we did have success, was we stayed ahead of the chains and didn’t let negative plays creep in.”

UW’s eight-man coverage scheme eliminated some of the passing windows Gordon normally has. Gordon blamed himself for failing to make the routine play when it was available.

But he isn’t the only one. Jimmy Lake’s defense obscured things last year for Gardner Minshew, who didn’t have a touchdown pass in the Apple Cup but accounted for two picks, and two years ago for Luke Falk, who had one touchdown and three interceptions in his final rivalry game.

Since 2013, Leach’s quarterbacks – a group that also included Peyton Bender and Connor Halliday – have thrown more than twice as many interceptions (16) as touchdowns (seven).

“With eight guys dropping so often, sometimes it’ll be a little clouded,” Gordon said. “Just as a quarterback for myself, I need to trust what I see more and trigger.”

The Huskies only finished with 3 more yards of offense than WSU, but they forced two more turnovers than the Cougars and shredded their rival with explosive plays. They also didn’t crumble in the red zone, turning six trips into 31 points.

“That has become a staple here,” Washington tight end Hunter Bryant said. “The seniors expect not to lose, everyone on the team expects not to lose. We came out and showed up.”

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