The Washington defense has not failed to perform this season. Their strongest position is their linebacking corps. They stay on the field as much as possible, either in UW’s base 3-4 or in their 2-4-5 nickel package. The Husky defense is very flexible when using their hybrid 3-4. They can flex an outside linebacker to cover the slot or roll a safety down when necessary, so there’s no need for a bunch of formations. Additionally, their two outside linebackers were converted safeties, and while they are used extensively in the pass rush, they are competent in coverage as well. Finally, you won’t see a whole lot of blitzing, as their defensive front is so strong that there’s no need for reinforcements. They will definitely have an opportunity to make an impact against the Cowboys. The Huskies' current secondary has four interceptions, and while they are still a talented bunch, the unit took a big hit with the dismissal of potential first-round cornerback Marcus Peters. UW's secondary vs OSU's receiving corps favors the Cowboys, but it becomes a moot point if the quarterback doesn't have time. Which brings us to the next section...
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
It’s no mystery that this front seven is stacked; this unit in particular is an O-line nightmare. First-team Academic All-American Danny Shelton adequately anchors the interior with his 6’2", 340-pound frame. Linebacker John "pops" Timu leads the team in total tackles with 96 and he has two season interceptions, both being pick-sixes. Fellow linebacker and first team All-American Shaq Thompson is the do-it-all man; Thompson plays offense, defense, and even a little bit of special teams. He has six touchdowns this year, two from offense and the other four from defense, and coincidentally, he shares the national lead for fumble recoveries (4) with Shelton. The final star of the front is outside linebacker and pass-rush specialist Hau’oli Kikaha. Kikaha will line up as the "buck" or rush backer, taking a Demarcus Ware-esque role in their base 3-4. He ended this season as the nation’s leader in sacks with 18. Kikaha is also second in the nation in tackles for loss with 24. Let us not forget that these stud defenders will be going against a troubled Cowboy offensive line; the Pokes’ offensive front currently ranks 112th in the nation in sacks allowed this season. You should all start praying now.
Keys to Offensive Success
Fill the Void
As we know, Cowboy running back and two-sport speedster Tyreek Hill was dismissed earlier this month following charges of domestic violence. Obviously, there is no one else on this roster (or possibly the nation) who possesses his talent, but his absence opens up new opportunities for other Cowboys to step up. There are a number of players on the Pokes' roster that, while not as talented as Hill, fit a similar prototype. Walk-on running back and former Kansas State player Raymond Taylor showed his shiftiness in limited snaps, and but most of his future production will probably come next season. Inside receivers Caleb Muncrief and David Glidden, while not possessing blazing speed, have shown a dependability when it comes to slot production. Redshirt Freshman Ra'shaad Samples has received limited playing time this year, but he but there's no denying his 4.3 talent. Looking ahead to next year, Jalen McClesky, the three-star receiver commit from Louisiana, has been said by many to fit the Josh Stewart prototype. McClesky scored the lone touchdown for the West in Texas' Blue-Grey All American Bowl earlier this month. But when it comes to the bowl game, the Cowboys will need to spread the production around to make up for Hill's absence, because it is doubtful that a single player can fill his shoes.
Don't Change the Offense
To be honest, the Cowboy offense won't look a whole lot different without Hill. Sure, you won't get any of the plays that were used to showcase his ability, but those plays were ones that they used anyway - his ability just accentuated their effectiveness. They did run some plays to get the ball in his hands; unfortunately, most of those "Tyreek plays" were one-offs - plays like the HB seam, the angle route - you saw them once and never saw them again, so in that sense, the coaching staff didn't exactly rip out half of the playbook with Hill's departure. To that point, the Cowboys must remember that none of the plays they used this season were made specifically for Tyreek Hill, and just because he's not there anymore does not mean that they cannot still use them. I'm afraid that they throw all of those plays out the window, but they shouldn't do that. In many cases, they've been running those plays for quite a while. For example, Tyreek's seam route against K-State - been there, done that. His effectiveness on the angle route? Yurcich has had that in his back pocket all along. Therefore, if you've had these plays even before Tyreek was there, then there is no reason to stop using them after he leaves.
Use Rudolph's Feet
Mason Rudolph is no Mariota; he does not have blazing speed or eye-opening elusiveness, but that does not mean that he cannot be effective with his legs. In his short Cowboy career, we have seen him on the run, either by necessity or by design. His mobility added a new facet to this once-struggling offense, giving it a much-needed spark.
After the Bedlam game, we mentioned the Cowboys' use of the triple option:
We also noticed their incorporation of the sprint-out pass following the Baylor game:
Concepts such as these can give the Pokes the consistency that they've been searching for all season. We've seen how Walsh can influence the playbook, so let's see what the game plan is with Rudolph.
Control the Pass Rush
As we mentioned before, the UW D-line vs the OSU O-line is by far the biggest mismatch. The Pokes were in a similar situation against OU, and they handled it fairly well, using a mixture of quick passes and max-protection. Looking to the Cactus Bowl, it could be anticipated that the Pokes will get a good majority of their passing yardage through packaged plays, with back-side tags, pop-passes, etc. It would at least make sense, and the Cowboy O-line seems to do a better job on the offensive rather than sitting back in true pass protection. Hopefully, they find a way to add a screen game, although it's been practically non-existent the entire year. Any wrinkle to aid this offensive line is encouraged, and it's going to be a long day if the Cowboys come out trying to seven-step drop their way down the field.
Oklahoma State will have a chance to fill the scoreboard if and only if they have a superior game plan. If they mix up the playbook, and Yurcich calls the game like he has been the past couple of weeks, then watch out, Washington. If they revert to their old ways, this game could win snoozer of the year.
How many points do the Cowboys score in the Cactus Bowl? Put your answer in the comments below.