Washington State’s offense is unique, that much Washington head coach Chris Petersen won’t dispute. But that alone didn’t make the Cougars one of the top offensive teams in the country.
Washington State’s style might look simple, Petersen said, but it’s actually sophisticated, detailed, precise. And what really turns it into a threat, he said, are the players.
“If you’ve got the players to complement it,” Petersen said, “they’re going to bring it to life.”
This season, Cougars head coach Mike Leach has those players. And it’s hard to argue with the results. Led by graduate transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew, the Cougars are 10-1 and sitting at No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Washington State leads the Pac-12 and is 14th in the country in yards per game with 482.3. The Cougars are also first in the nation in passing yards per game with 400.5. And if the success of Washington State’s offense is all about the players, it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect fit than Minshew.
The Cougars have won seven consecutive games since their lone defeat, a 39-36 loss to USC. Most recently, they put up 69 points in a dominant victory over Arizona. Minshew completed 43-of-55 passes for 473 yards and seven — yes, seven — touchdowns in the win.
Despite this season’s nearly unprecedented success, UW co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said Washington State’s system hasn’t changed. Minshew is just running it exactly as envisioned.
“(Minshew) moves around,” Kwiatkowski said. “But you can watch all the tapes. The offense is what it is. They want to sit in there and they want to throw the ball down the field. It’s up to us to try and get him off his spot and make him run around so that he has to throw with his feet moving.”
That won’t be an easy task against the Cougars’ offensive line.
“They do a great job protecting him, buying him time,” said Huskies’ defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe. “And then you talk about a quarterback that knows where he wants to deliver the ball. … This will be a really big challenge for us regardless of who we have on the field. Our attempt to just move him off the spot is just our biggest goal.”
Washington State has allowed just nine sacks through 11 games.
“That’s really an amazing stat, how few sacks they’ve given up for how much they throw it,” Petersen said. “They’re one of the better teams in the country in not giving up sacks and they throw it the most. Right there that tells you a lot. They’re playing with a lot of confidence and all those things.”
While Petersen said there have been a few tweaks to the Cougars’ offense since last season, they mostly stick to their game plan. For Washington State, that means protecting the quarterback as well as any team in the country.
“That coupled with Minshew in terms of his pocket poise and presence,” Petersen said. “He’s got a great feel. You’re going after him, the ball is out. You’re not coming after him? He’s going to stand in there. You get to him? He’s going to get out of the pocket. Really decisive. The combination of those two things is really what made him a little different.”
Said linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven: “They obviously have a different offense and everything like that. … They’re going to throw the ball all over the field. That’s what they’ve always done. We know that. It’ll be interesting.”
Minshew leads in the country in passing yards, completing 407-of-578 passes for 4.328 yards, 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The nation’s second-leading passer, Ole Miss’ Jordan Ta’amu, has thrown for 3,831 yards and 19 touchdowns.
And Minshew doesn’t lack for receiving options. Against Arizona, he completed a pass to 11 players. Eight players have more than 300 receiving yards this season. Running back James Williams has caught 69 passes for 530 yards and four touchdowns.
“Over the two running backs, they’ve caught over 100 passes,” Petersen said. “And (Minshew) gets it out there and it’s all about space, creating space. That’s what he does, creates space.
“Space in the flat? That’s where the ball’s going. Now try and tackle these shifty guys that are hard to tackle. Space downfield? He’ll find it. You rush three guys? He’ll find the space and throw it there. It’s always a cat-and-mouse game.”
Petersen has never lost to Washington State. Over the past four years, the Huskies have won the Apple Cup by an average of 27 points per game. When asked about his success, Petersen said he couldn’t explain it. And even if he could, he continued, he wouldn’t tell.
But boiled down by Kwiatkowski, the keys to the matchup seem almost simple.
“Defensively, we do what we do and it is what it is,” Kwiatkowski said. “And they do what they do. It always comes down to players executing. Obviously, we prepare them and we have to have them ready to execute.
“Tackling, being physical, forcing turnovers, being around the quarterback. If we can’t sack them because they’re that good then we have to be right there making him feel it and hopefully forcing him into bad decisions.”