WSU Started Out Hot
Even though the Apple Cup was in Seattle, the Washington State Cougars began with a bang. They took the ball 81 yards down the field on a patient, 13-play drive. Capping the drive off with a Max Borghi one-yard touchdown, WSU looked great.
Then, the Cougars defense sacked Jacob Eason on his first offensive play. They held strong and forced the Huskies to a three-and-out on their first possession. Ball goes back to the Cougs and they’re already leading 7-0.
The stage was set for a WSU upset in the Apple Cup. Anthony Gordon looked comfortable, patient and was willing to take what the defense gave him. Mike Leach schemed up open looks and it was perfect weather for the Air Raid offense. 41 degrees, sunny and no wind.
But, everything changed after that.
Anthony Gordon’s Dreadful Apple Cup Performance
Although Gordon’s 103.0 Passing Efficiency Rating against Utah in Week 5 was poor, that was at least against an elite defense and the Pac-12’s best team. But, even though the Washington Huskies played exceptionally well, they are no Utah. Somehow, the Huskies held Gordon to 308 yards and zero touchdowns on 62 attempts, while intercepting two of his passes. So why did Gordon struggle so much in this Apple Cup?
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Offensive Line Issues
Up until the Apple Cup, Washington State ranked first in the FBS in Sack Rate, per footballoutsiders. Their 2.1-percent Sack Rate was phenomenal. Keeping Anthony Gordon upright was standard procedure. Just 13 sacks on 585 attempts. Their line was top-notch.
However, against the Huskies, they fell apart. Washington consistently pressured Gordon and sacked him five times. In just one game, they accounted for 28-percent of all sacks against WSU this season. Joe Tryon, Edeguan Ulofoshio and Ryan Bowman took Gordon down for negative-45 yards and a forced fumble on their five sacks.
Even more impressive, they delivered back-to-back sacks on the Cougars fourth drive. After starting out leading 7-0 and playing with a lead, Gordon’s fourth drive was a nightmare. Down 10-14, sacked twice in a row and throwing from his own end zone on 3rd-and-27. The Huskies manhandled WSU’s line time and time again.
Even after a poor Apple Cup showing, Anthony Gordon still leads the FBS in passing yards (5,228) and touchdowns (45). In fact, his 5,228 passing yards is almost 1,000 yards better than Joe Burrow’s second-ranked 4,366 yards. Yet, against UW, he couldn’t get anything going after their opening drive.
Call it preparation, home-field advantage or the Chris Petersen edge. Whatever it is, the Cougars consistently fail in the Apple Cup. In Peterson’s own words. the Cougars “run the same offense every week.” Because of this, preparation was simple and all the Huskies needed to do was execute their game-plan.
In their game plan, they often dropped eight into coverage and only rushed three. UW’s secondary gave up nothing deep and forced Gordon to check passes down. It was a rare occasion to see even an attempt, let alone a reception downfield. Instead, Max Borghi led the team with 12 receptions. Then, when Gordon actually tried to make something happen, he threw into a sea of defenders.
Offensively, the Cougars came into the Apple Cup with all the counting stats. But, UW matched up in perfection. They covered downfield, gave their defensive line time to get to Gordon, forced everything short and kept Gordon fearful of taking shots.
Jacob Eason Let’s it Fly in the Apple Cup
Unlike Anthony Gordon, Jacob Eason and the Huskies were willing to take chances downfield. And it paid off in spectacular fashion.
Though Jacob Eason started off the game with a sack, a deep incompletion and a three-and-out, he kept his gunslinger attitude. He took advantage of Terrell Bynum’s speed and hit him for 57-yards on their first touchdown drive.
More importantly, Eason and the Huskies maintained their confidence, even with more issues. Remember that Eason started off the game with a three-and-out, missing on a deep shot. Then, in the second quarter, he overthrew a wide-open Hunter Bryant and was then bailed out on a deep overthrow because of a penalty. Aside from his earlier 57-yard connection with Bynum, it appeared that Eason’s inaccuracy was hurting the Huskies. But, they continued to put faith in Eason and their receivers.
Again and again, it paid dividends. While the Cougars lacked downfield threats or ability, the Huskies took advantage of their Apple Cup matchup. Not only that, but UW finally utilized their talent properly. Hunter Bryant led the team in receptions and yards, which completely makes sense given his talent.
But, unlike prior games where Aaron Fuller and Chico McClatcher took up targets and space, sophomores Terrell Bynum and Cade Otton got involved. Their combined 6 receptions for 123 yards and one touchdown were huge. They made play after play, getting first downs, yards after the catch, or making difficult catches.
The Huskies Won the Apple Cup by Sticking with Their Gunslinger
It took Anthony Gordon 62 attempts to reach 308 passing yards. On the opposite sideline, Eason threw just 22 times, but compiled 244 yards and led his team to four touchdowns. The Huskies leaned into Eason’s gunslinging style and schemed up ways to get his receivers one-on-one matchups downfield. Even though Eason missed some throws and Bryant and Bynum dropped passes, they stuck with it.
Unlike this, the Cougars collapsed and failed to adjust. Gordon was afraid to throw it deep and continued to dump it off to his safety valves. His passes routinely traveled to the short-middle or the flats.
If Mike Leach ever wants to win an Apple Cup, he needs to make adjustments and have a backup plan. It was clear that he didn’t have that on Friday.