Luke Falk and Washington State’s Air Raid offense has bewildered many foes this season, but the Washington Huskies secondary is the best in the Pac-12 Conference.
Thanksgiving weekend is best characterized by excess. Caloric intake, stampedes for shopping deals and squaring off against the second-most prolific passing offense in college football.
OK, that last task is reserved for the defensive backs of the Washington Huskies, who are in Pullman to play Washington State Friday (12:30 p.m., FOX). But it fits the theme and is certain to cause half of the Apple Cup’s devotees an additional bout of indigestion.
QB Luke Falk averages 357 passing yards per game and has thrown 36 touchdown passes this season against seven interceptions. Last year’s Apple Cup was meant to be the ultimate matchup between Falk and a Huskies defense that earned the nickname “Death Row.” Disappointment was palpable when Falk was ruled out of the game with a concussion, and the Huskies trounced Washington State 45-10.
This year will have no last-minute stand-ins for the title fight. Falk will go against the Huskies, the Pac-12’s No. 2 pass defense unit. Last week, against No. 1 Colorado, Falk was 26-of-53 for 325 yards, three touchdowns and one interception that stopped a late drive to bring the game within one score.
To call the bar high would be to call Aunt May’s fermented green-bean casserole “robust.”
Washington defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake spoke for his players, who were barred from speaking to the media ahead of the game, and claimed they were ready to meet the challenge.
“Our guys cannot wait,” Lake said Tuesday. “This is such an unbelievable opportunity. Defensive backs, we love to stop the run, but we really want the ball thrown. We’re more excited to play this game than a Georgia Tech or an Air Force where they’re going to run the ball 80 times.
“We know they’re going to throw it 50-plus times at us. It’s going to be a challenge, but that’s exactly what defensive backs want.”
Lake said Falk is one of the best passers the team has faced, but qualified it by putting Falk in the context of coach Mike Leach’s offensive system.
“He’s up there for sure,” Lake responded when asked if Falk was the best. “I think their scheme is a big-time scheme. If you look since Leach has been there, everyone he’s dealt with, they all have basically the same numbers. It’s a genius scheme that gives a lot of high output for wide receivers, numbers-wise. I don’t think any of his quarterbacks have played bad.”
Lake has a point. Jeff Tuel, the starter when Leach took over in 2012, threw for 2,087 yards in 10 games, splitting time with Connor Halliday, who added 1,878 yards of his own. In Halliday’s junior and senior years, he threw for 4,597 yards (34 TD) and 3,873 yards (32 TD), respectively.
Be it scheme or player, it doesn’t change the fact that Falk has amassed 3,935 passing yards.
Lake said the scheme presents a number of challenges.
“I guess it helps when you throw the ball 50-pllus times a game,” he said. “Also, they have a number of routes that they can adjust to off of coverage. They basically have an answer for everything. You bring pressure, they have an answer. You drop everyone, they have an answer. It’s a scheme they’ve done for a long time.”
“You turn on the tape, they run the same stuff over and over again. They’re really good at it. We know what’s coming, and we know we’ve got to stop it. It’s not like a number of opponents where they’ll change their schemes.”
Washington’s pass coverage looked disjointed in its lone loss to USC, when redshirt freshman Sam Darnold threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns, but also threw two picks. Confusion in that game was further spread by the loss of Azeem Victor, LB extraordinaire, to a broken leg midway through the second quarter.
Takeaways may be Washington’s best chance to stave off the Air Raid. Washington has 13 picks this season, third best in the conference. Falk, though, has been excellent in his decision making. His seven interceptions is nearly half that of the 12 by Cal’s Davis Webb, the only other quarterback in the Pac-12 with an average of 45 passing attempts or more per game.
If Washington can get their hands on Falk’s passes, they can neuter the Cougars’ ability to push downfield. Fail, and Falk will spend Friday afternoon doing a different sort of carving than millions did Thursday.