The 2018 Apple Cup was often treated as a sort of “that’s what you get for trying to throw all the time, Leach,” game by many commentators. Washington’s DB coach and co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake played that angle up with some of his quotes after the game as well...
It snowed heavily during the game of course, and the juxtaposition of styles was rather jarring and suggested the supremacy of traditional smash mouth football for winning in a cold weather game.
The Huskies ran the ball 44x for 258 yards and three scores while Leach’s Cougars ran the ball 24x for 85 yards and two scores. Additionally, the last two possessions by the Husky offense won this game. The first produced an 80-yard scoring run by Myles Gaskin from a 22 personnel set and then the next drive (also involving that personnel group) began with 8:54 left on the clock in the fourth quarter and ended with Jake Browning kneeling out the game.
So the narrative after the game was definitively that the Huskies’ superior physicality and their embrace of traditional football tactics allowed them to decisively win a classic bad weather game. The actual chess games were a little more involved and interesting.
Check down city: Gardner Minshew and the 2018 Cougar offense
If you watched the Gardner Minshew offense in 2018 it often wasn’t as glorious as you’d guess from the Air Raid reputation and his fifth place finish in the Heisman voting. The Cougar’s no. 1 receiver was RB James Williams, with 83 catches for 613 yards and four TDs at 7.4 yards per catch. Their no. 4 receiver was RB Max Borghi, with 53 catches for 374 yards and four TDs at 7.1 yards per catch. Washington State in 2018 was check down city.
What made Minshew and their offensive particularly effective in 2018 was how consistent Minshew was about quickly checking down to recent Kansas City Chief acquisition James Williams (UDFA) in a ton of open space in the flat. Even if you covered up their vertical passes the shallow crossers and check downs could eat up yardage as efficiently as any run game in the country.
Observe both the rhythm with which Minshew hits those check downs as well as Williams’ ability to transform back into a RB after the catch and go fight for extra yardage.
Essentially the 2018 Cougars were comparable to a Tom Brady Patriots team, efficient and consistent enough taking the free candy in the flats to actually work their way down the field and beat you. They scored 37.5 points per game and went up against an underrated slate of great defenses beating Wyoming (41st in S&P+) 41-19, Utah (19th) 28-24, Cal (13th) 19-13, and then finishing against Washington (4th) who beat them 28-15 and Iowa State (28th) whom they beat 28-26.
The Cougars were consistently fielding five true receiving threats (generally 10 personnel or 20 personnel with Borghi joining Williams in the backfield) and then buying the already mobile and scramble-savvy Minshew time with a LT in Andre Dillard who just went in the first round of the NFL draft.
The Huskies’ counter
To their great credit, Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski both seemed to understand the name of the game from the old Pirate’s approach. They drew up their personnel packages for this game with the aim of A) avoiding any sieves in their defensive backfield and B) maintaining an energetic pass-rush without needing to bring more than four.
This was their starting lineup:
That’s dime personnel with the Huskies essentially trading a DT for an extra nickel, but then playing the nickel in the OLB spot and spinning the OLB down to the DL. They played a few different fronts and stunted throughout the game but typically lined up in the tite front with two 4i-technique DEs and then a zero nose.
The beauty of that set-up, captured here in a screenshot...
...was that they were balanced across their defensive formation. When the Cougars lined up in their favorite 2x2 spread sets there was a nickel DB lined up across from each slot receiver. That left the LBs and/or a down safety responsible for covering up the RBs or a no. 3 receiver in a trips formation. Of course, the Huskies had one of the most rangy LBs in the country with Ben Burr-Kirven who had an obscene 176 tackles in 2018, and both their ILBs and both safeties were all 210-220 pound guys that were comfortable in space. There weren’t many weak spots to aim for, even for the nearly five-wide Cougar lineup.
The Huskies also rotated liberally, particularly their sled dogs up front on the DL, and were rewarded with a pass-rush that came through late despite regularly sending only three or four rushers every snap.
The battle in the middle of the chessboard
Mike Leach ultimately fell into the same trap as every other eventual chew toy that found itself in the Huskies’ jaws in 2018. He looked across that setup and determined that their best bet was to attack the middle linebacker.
But the Cougars had a few ways of doing that and did experience varying degrees of success. One method was to swing their RB to the trips side of a formation after the snap to overload with numbers to the field.
On this one they’re running a stick route with clear out switch verticals outside and then the RB swinging to the same side. Minshew is reading BBK at the snap and how he widens determines the throw, BBK doesn’t move out of the box with any urgency so Minshew quick triggers the stick route in for an easy eight or so.
On this play they're running the snag combo to the trips side with the fourth receiver running a clear out. Again, four targets to the field means 1-on-1s against the corner, nickel, strong safety, and then BBK IF he gets wide quickly enough. This time the stress is released in the flat where the nickel has to mind the slot and the snag route before closing on the RB swing pass and he misses the tackle in space leading to a big gain.
The Cougars were landing some shots early, but overall the Huskies did well to play with good depth. They leaned on the tite front to allow them to play BBK wider (he could defend the C-gap against trips) and then his fantastic range allowed the Huskies to keep the ball in front on all of Washington State’s crossers and check downs. Minshew was 14-17 early on for 87 yards, which made for a paltry 5.1 ypa, and things got worse down the stretch as the slushy turf limited their ability to pick up yards after the catch.
Again, clear out routes and then a rhythm check down to the back in wide open spaces, but check down city didn’t have enough salt and trucks to clear the roads.
The run game was a mixed bag, when they were able to win an inside gap against the Husky DL then it went well...
...when the ball was spilled then the dime personnel secondary would just run things down for no gain:
Late in the game their attempts to repeatedly target BBK with their inside overloads, mesh concepts, and occasional zone or draw handoffs inside finally went terribly wrong. A three man stunt finally got home on Minshew and he tried to flip it out to a crosser who was sitting underneath the linebackers. The ball sailed and BBK was in position to close and pick it off.
It often drives fans nuts to see a team give up throws underneath deep dropping defenders over and over again, but when the LBs play with better depth it allows them to force long drives and to pounce on mistakes. That used to be the trick to Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma teams consistent victories over the Mike Leach Red Raiders in the 2000s. The Cougar RBs led the team in receptions but combined for 14 catches that yielded only 79 total yards.
Washington’s big play in this game was just to get personnel on the field that wouldn’t give up anything easy in the passing game and to force check down city to prove they could score enough against the superior tacklers on the Husky defense. Beyond that, they shifted between two-deep coverages and their preferred single-high and brought a lot of games and bodies up front to keep up pressure on Minshew.
Credit to Lake and Kwiatkowski for understanding the nature of the fight and aiming to flip the script on Leach’s Cougars. Beyond playing dime personnel they played pass-rushers on the DL over run-stuffers and looked to try and move the focal point of the game back to the box, refusing to believe that Washington State could or would aim to win by running the ball.
However, Leach had plenty of calls on his short sheet that succeeded in getting his RBs and inside receivers in space, even against Ben Burr-Kirven. There might have been enough there were it not for the dreadful conditions that eliminated their ability to get the kind of yards after catch they normally picked up. That wasn’t likely a problem of style either, Washington fumbled three times (lost two) and threw an INT while the Cougars turned it over twice. The Husky run game went 43-178 at 4.1 ypc other than the 80-yard run that made the difference in this contest.
Other than losing YAC, what burned Leach’s squad in this game was that they didn’t have a deep threat at WR that could land a bigger punch on the Huskies’ NFL-laden secondary. That and their defense couldn't stop the run in the fourth quarter. I don’t think this was as decisive a win for the Lake/Kwiatkowski combo as the popular narratives suggest and it’ll be interesting to see the rematches in 2019 and 2020 if Leach can find a Wes Welker or Michael Crabtree at WR that can really get after the next iteration of the Washington secondary.
The strength of the 2018 Cougars was in their check down targets and Minshew’s ability and willingness to flip it out to them. The strength of the Husky team was that their middle linebacker runs like a safety, they had a deep bench of DBs that can tackle, and their staff understands that it’s better to eliminate glaring holes before seeking pass-rush opportunities. Bad matchup for Leach’s squad and a narrow win on the scorecard for Lake and Kwiatkowski.