2015 Cactus Bowl preview: Washington vs. Oklahoma State
Washington and Oklahoma State finished the regular season with big wins in their rivalry games that added a healthy jolt of momentum heading into the bowl season. While the wins in complete opposite fashion, (Washington cruised to a 31-13 win over Washington State in the Apple Cup and Oklahoma State rallied late for 38-35 overtime win over Oklahoma) they accomplished the same thing, getting the Huskies and Cowboys to a bowl game with the chance to finish off their seasons on a positive note.
Washington (8-5, 4-5 Pac-12) and Oklahoma State (6-6, 4-5 Big 12) will get their chance to keep things rolling Jan. 2 (7:15 p.m. PT, ESPN) at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, in the 26th Annual TicketCity Cactus Bowl.
So what to expect come gameday? Here are some of the key matchups and factors heading into the Cactus Bowl.
Outlook: The Huskies can't look past freshman QB Mason Rudolph
The emergence of quarterback Mason Rudolph and his ability to avoid turnovers in the final two games of the season has been a major catalyst in getting Oklahoma State to Tempe. The freshman needs to keep it up if the Cowboys hope to have success against a Washington team that is amongst the nation's best at taking the ball away from opponents and not committing turnovers themselves.
Rudolph initially appeared destined for a redshirt season in 2014, but was inserted as a starter for Oklahoma State’s November 22 game at Baylor after previous starter Daxx Garman struggled through four-straight losses. Rudolph stepped in and immediately gave the Cowboy offense a shot in the arm and was huge in pushing the Cowboys past Oklahoma.
Rudolph had just one turnover in his performance against Oklahoma, but he has yet to face a defense that can harass a quarterback and take the ball away that Washington can (the Huskies finished second in the nation in sacks and tied for 16th in turnovers gained). On top of that, Washington’s defense also has had a lot of success against pro style quarterbacks, holding the offenses of Cal’s Jared Goff, Oregon State’s Sean Mannion and Washington State’s Luke Falk to a combined 33 points in three games.
However, if Rudolph can get improved protection from a Cowboy offensive line that gave up more sacks than any other team in the Big 12, he will have a shot at putting up yardage against a very young Washington secondary that gives up an average of 283 passing yards per-game. The Huskies do not have a single junior or senior that sees significant time in their secondary and "Rudolph The Redshirt Freshman" could lead the Cowboys to another huge win if he has the time to allow his receivers to test those freshmen and sophomore for the Huskies.
WASHINGTON PLAYERS TO WATCH
LB Shaq Thompson (71 tackles, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, five defensive touchdowns)
The 2014 winner of the Paul Hornung Award, Thompson is simply college football’s most versatile athlete. The electric junior has a nose for the end zone unlike any other defender in the nation as he scored an incredible five touchdowns on defense. To put that into perspective, only twelve teams in college football had at least five defensive touchdowns this season.
Thompson’s abilities are not limited to the defensive side of the ball though as the 6’1 228-pound linebacker had the look of an NFL running back when the Huskies put the ball in his hands on the offensive side of the ball. Thompson ran for more than 450 yards as a running back while averaging 7.5 yards per-carry, the highest average for any player that carried the ball as a running back in the Pac-12 in 2014.
Washington coach Chris Petersen summed up Thompson’s all-around skills perfectly when asked by the media about his Heisman potential earlier in the season.
“I haven’t seen a better football player out there than that guy (Thompson),” Petersen said.
LB Hau’oli Kikaha (67 tackles, 24 tackles for-loss, 18 sacks)
Kikaha has been a nightmare coming off the edge for opposing quarterbacks all season. Kikaha is the nation’s leader in the sacks and second in tackles for loss and became Washington all-time leader in sacks earlier in the season.
The 6’3 246-pound senior is one of the best comeback stories in recent Pac-12 history as he missed the bulk of two seasons because of two ACL tears, but recovered to record 31 sacks the past two seasons and become a finalist for five national postseason awards in 2014.
DT Danny Shelton (89 tackles, 16.5 tackles for-loss, 9 sacks, four fumble recoveries)
You simply do not see defensive tackles that have the kind of athleticism that Shelton possesses, and he has used that athleticism to put together a stat line that looks like it should belong to an All-American linebacker, not a 339-pound defensive tackle.
While Shelton’s unique combination of physical skills have turned him into an All-American on the field, his prowess in the classroom is right there with his gridiron success as he was named a First-Team academic All-American in 2014.
OKLAHOMA STATE PLAYERS TO WATCH
DE Emmanuel Ogbah (46 tackles, 17 tackles for-loss, 11 sacks, five pass break ups)
Ogbah has become a monster in the pass rush for the Cowboys in just his second year of college football and the Big 12 took notice, awarding him with Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year honors for 2014. Finishing second in the Big 12 in sacks, the 6’4 270 has excellent quickness and speed on the edge for a player with his size and he uses it to make opposing quarterbacks miserable.
The sophomore also showed that he has a little J.J. Watt in him in 2014 as his five pass break ups are tied for second on the team.
LB Josh Furman (58 tackles, 12 tackles for-loss, six sacks, four pass break ups)
Furman was a solid contributor in three seasons as a Michigan Wolverine, but has blossomed into a full blown star in just one season at Oklahoma State. Furman transferred from Michigan after graduating in Ann Arbor and has made the most of his one season in Stillwater, earning honorable mention All-Big-12 honors along with garnering votes for the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year award.
Furman moved up to linebacker after spending his career at Michigan as a safety and the 6’2 202-pound senior has flourished in his new position, using his defensive back speed and range to his advantage to become one of the Big 12’s best pass rushers.
QB Mason Rudolph (554 yards passing, four touchdowns)
Rudolph’s college résumé is short, but it does include leading the Cowboys to a win over Oklahoma and that goes a long, long way in Stillwater. The 6’4 217-pound true freshman from Rock Hill, South Carolina looks like Oklahoma State’s quarterback of the future.
Rudolph’s stats do not jump off the page yet, but the talented freshman’s poise and efficiency has played a big role in getting the Oklahoma State offense back on track at the end of the season.
Oklahoma State O-line vs. Washington D-line
The Oklahoma State offensive front is one of the worst in the nation at protecting the quarterback (they are 112th in the nation in sacks allowed) and they will be facing off with one of nation’s best at getting after quarterback in Washington, who is third in the nation in team sacks.
With that in mind, Mike Gundy and his staff is assuredly trying to find a way to shore up their pass protection in a hurry, as the Husky front could give their offense serious headaches if the Cowboys cannot keep defenders out of the backfield.
Cyler Miles vs. Mason Rudolph
These two guys clearly will not be going head-to-head on the field, but which ever team’s young quarterback puts together the better performance could easily decide who walks out of Sun Devil Stadium with a win.
Washington sophomore Miles has been incredibly efficient throughout 2014 with a 66.7 completion percentage with 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions. However, his production has tapered off against better opponents, as he averages just 155 yards passing per-game with just two touchdowns to two interceptions and a staggering low 5.7 yards per-completion in Washington’s losses.
That yards per-completion stat might be the most important stat for Miles going into the Cactus Bowl, as the Oklahoma State defense will likely stack the box against the run, unless Miles can show that he can beat them downfield early on.
On the Oklahoma State side, Rudolph will have to stand tall and continue to show poise beyond his years against a Washington defense with a track record of frustrating quarterbacks, or it could be a long day for the Cowboys offense.
STATS TO KNOW
27 – Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha and Danny Shelton have combined for 27 sacks in 2014, more than the total number of sacks accumulated by more than half of the nation’s team in 2014.
4- Number of fumbles lost by Oklahoma State. Tied for second-least in the nation.
7 – Number of touchdowns scored by Washington’s defense.
13.86 – Yards per-completion for Oklahoma State (23rd in nation). Washington averages 11.01 (97th in the nation).
16 – Number of interceptions thrown by Oklahoma State in 2014 (tied for 108th in nation)