Capitals

Huskies set to face rival Cougars for Apple Cup

Huskies set to face rival Cougars for Apple Cup

PULLMAN, Wash. (AP) At midseason Washington was teetering on the brink of collapse, coming off three straight losses, two huge blowouts and dissent in the fan base about whether Steve Sarkisian was truly the right coach to be rebuilding its program.

During the past four weeks, Sarkisian's team has quieted critics, matched the longest regular season win streak in more than a decade and put the Huskies on the brink of their first eight-win season since 2001.

Yet the Huskies (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) are mostly overshadowed by the chaos at Washington State (2-9, 0-8) headed into Friday's Apple Cup against the rival Cougars. No two-win team has gotten as much attention as the Cougars, largely because they have underperformed and for claims of abuse from coaches by former wide receiver Marquess Wilson that led to internal and Pac-12 investigations.

Then again, not every two-win team has Mike Leach as its head coach.

``We need to go out and try to win the game just for the sake of trying to win the game and play good football,'' Leach said this week.

Then he added about all the chaos: ``Most of the time it's been pointless and centered toward selfish people who are being revealed for who they are.''

Expectations before the season had the Apple Cup as a possible bowl-clinching opportunity for the Cougars with the excitement over that potential making up for the fact the game is being played the day after Thanksgiving on the Washington State campus while students are out on break.

Instead, no one is quite sure what the atmosphere will be. Normally, games in Pullman have an extra twinge of vitriol. Washington State officials said earlier this week less than a 1,000 tickets remained, yet how many of those were snatched up before the season began when all the buzz and hype in the state was pointed crimson and gray is unknown.

There's no debating Leach's first season in Pullman has flopped on the field as he attempted to recondition the Cougars into the type of program he wants going forward. Before the season, the Cougars were thought to be a potential bowl team with the amount of talent returning and Leach's run of success at Texas Tech which proved his ability to win nearly anywhere.

Those same fans that bought season tickets in droves and ramped up donations to the school have been left shaking their heads at another downtrodden season when they've received far more negative attention than the positive buzz that Leach's hiring brought.

Some of the losses have been ugly and reminiscent of just a few years ago when the Cougars were the laughingstock of college football. But Washington State has flustered some of the better competition in the Pac-12 this season. They flustered Oregon for a half, before the Ducks took off and pulled away. They put a scare into Oregon State, nearly pulled off a huge upset at Stanford and made a valiant second-half rally after being down 30 to make things uncomfortable for UCLA.

The Cougars may be short-handed with quarterback Connor Halliday and defensive end Travis Long possibly missing the game with injuries. Leach does not discuss the injury status of his players, but indicated Jeff Tuel would likely start at quarterback.

``This is a big game for a lot of people. Everyone remembers the Apple Cup,'' Washington State DB Deone Bucannon said. ``You're going to remember the Apple Cup for the rest of your life.''

Leach can only wish for the day he can give the same speech Sarkisian did in his team room earlier this week, bringing up the fact that Washington could finish with eight wins for the first time since the 2001 season that ended with a berth in the Holiday Bowl. A fifth-straight win to close the season would be the Huskies longest winning roll since 2000, the last time Washington made a trip to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.

Sarkisian is undefeated against the Cougars (4-0) and his teams at Washington are becoming known for making late surges. It's a small sample, but the Huskies are 9-6 in regular season games in the months of November and December in Sarkisian's four seasons. It's an impressive trait since the Huskies are just 7-10 in the month of October under Sarkisian.

``I think that's one of our main things in the program is finish. Even in the offseason workouts it's not about how you start, but how you finish. Everybody is going to remember the end of the season and I think that's been our main motto since I've been here,'' Washington QB Keith Price said. ``It's been a real attention to detail when it comes to the end of the season. We know what we need to accomplish and Sark harps on that.''

While Washington's offense has awakened the last two weeks, the current win streak is mostly on the shoulders of the Huskies improving defense. After giving up 52 points at Arizona on Oct. 20, Washington has allowed just 48 in wins over Oregon State, California, Utah and Colorado.

``We had a rocky start,'' Washington safety Justin Glenn said. ``The way we've responded to the adversity and battled back and strung these four wins together and kept it going, that's what (Sarkisian) wanted and that's what we've tried to do.''

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5 keys for the Caps to win Game 7 and advance to the Stanley Cup Final

5 keys for the Caps to win Game 7 and advance to the Stanley Cup Final

It all comes down to this.

The Eastern Conference Championship is on the line Wednesday as the Capitals take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa. Here are five keys for how the Caps can win and advance to face the Vegas Golden Knights for the Stanley Cup.

Score first

Game 7 is in Tampa Bay, the Lightning are deeper offensively and defensively and have a goalie capable of shutting down an offense.

Oh, and the Lightning are 8-1 when scoring first this postseason.

The Capitals are at their best when they are dictating the play. They want to play physical, trap the blue line and counter against the Lightning. None of those are particularly great strategies for chasing a game.

That makes the first goal critical.

The Lightning fans have seen their team lose twice at home already this series and fail to close out the Caps in Game 6. They have watched their team reach the conference finals two straight years in 2015 and 2016, fail to win the Stanley Cup in either year and fail to even make the playoffs in 2017.

Not only does playing with a lead better suit their game plan, but if Washington scores first that crowd is going to get very uncomfortable very quickly.

Gauge the referees

The Caps were very physical in Game 6 and they found success with that game plan. You would expect them to have a similar approach to Game 7, but they need to be careful.

In Game 6, it was clear the referees had put away the whistles. There were a few questionable plays on both sides that the referees let go. In a Game 7, you would hope the referees take the same approach, but they may not.

Tampa Bay’s power play is very good and the Caps cannot afford to give them many opportunities, but Washington will still want to play a physical style. It’s a fine line to walk so the Caps will need to quickly figure out how strictly the referees are calling the game and adjust accordingly.

Win the goalie matchup

In this series, Andrei Vasilevskiy has had two bad games and four good ones. He lost both of his bad games and won three of his good ones. He did not win the fourth, however, because he was outplayed by Braden Holtby.

Vasilevskiy was great in Game 6, but Holtby matched him save for save as both teams battled to get on the board. When the Caps finally did, Holtby shut the door to make sure the Lightning could not climb back. Vasilevskiy allowed just two goals on 32 shots, but Holtby turned away all 24 of the shots he faced for the shutout.

This is Game 7. There is no Game 8 just because you run into a hot goalie. If Vasilevskiy is on his game again on Wednesday, Holtby will have to be just as good if not better to make sure the Caps win.

Beat the fourth line

Playing at home in Game 6 allowed the Caps to get away somewhat from the Alex Ovechkin vs. fourth line matchup the Lightning have found success with. At 5-on-5, Chris Kunitz played 6:55 against Ovechkin, Ryan Callahan played 6:22 and Cedric Paquette played 6:12, considerably less than the 13:04, 13:46 and 13:42 each respectively logged in Game 5.

With Game 7 in Tampa, Barry Trotz will not be able to get away from that matchup. That means Ovechkin will just have to beat it.

That does necessarily mean he has to score a hat-trick. Ovechkin was one of the team’s top performers in Game 6 despite not logging a point as he helped establish a physical tone that ignited the team. But he has to make sure at the very least that his line is not outscored by the fourth like it was in Game 5 when Paquette and Callahan each scored.

Have a short memory

If you have a bad game in Game 1, you know you can bounce back in the series. A Game 7, however, is winner take all. If there’s a bad bounce, a bad call by the referees, a bad play, a missed save, whatever it may be, the Caps have to be able to put it out of their minds quickly.

There is no room for the “here we go again” mentality on Wednesday. The fate of this season will be determined within 60 minutes. If Holtby is not on his game, the Caps will have to battle through it. If Ovechkin has a bad night, the Caps will have to battle through it. If the referees decide they are going to call everything down to the letter of the law, the Caps will have to battle through it.

If something goes against them, they cannot allow it to bog them down mentally as we have seen at times in Game 7s of the past.

Likewise, if things go well they need to put that out of their heads as well. Desperation will grow among the Lightning as the game goes on. This is not the time to sit on a lead or circle the wagons.

Washington can’t let mistakes or success go to their head until the clock hits 00:00.

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Need to Know: What to look for at Redskins OTAs

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Need to Know: What to look for at Redskins OTAs

Here is what you need to know on this Wednesday, May 23, 65 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

What to look for at OTAs

Redskins OTAs started yesterday. The no-contact drills are the first time during the offseason program that the offense and defense are permitted to line up against each other. The-no pads aspect of it does take off a lot of the edge but the reality is that this will be the closest thing to football we will see until training camp starts in late July. 

Here are some things that I will be looking for during today’s practice.

Who’s in? Jay Gruden told us earlier that we should expect to see some injured key players not participating as they continue to recover from 2017 injuries. Specifically, OT Trent Williams (knee), OT Morgan Moses (ankles), and TE Jordan Reed (hamstring/toe) will only be spectators if they are at Redskins Park at all. Other players who may sit out or participate only in light drills are RB Chris Thompson (leg), and ILB Mason Foster (shoulder). The Redskins have been relatively healthy the past few offseasons so we will see how they deal with the aftermath of the injury scourge that hit the team last year. 

Seven-on-seven—Sure, it’s fun to watch the full team drills with 11 on each side but since blocking and tackling is limited by the rules about contact, there isn’t much to be gleaned from watching an off-tackle run. But when they eliminate the guards, tackles, and interior defensive linemen it’s all passing and then we can watch how well Alex Smith and his receivers are connecting. One thing I’ll keep in mind is that Smith decided not to get the receivers together for a “passing camp” before the offseason activities started. He said that he wanted to get to know the playbook first. Because of that they can be forgiven if they are not quite as sharp as they might be. Also, how natural does Derrius Guice look coming out of the backfield to catch passes? His primary job will be to carry the ball, but if he is a legitimate pass-catching threat, the whole offense will be harder to defend.

Rookies vs. pros—In rookie camp two weeks ago we saw Trey Quinn putting defensive backs on the ground with some moves and Troy Apke showing great makeup speed on some long passes. But those tryout defensive backs and quarterbacks are no longer around. How will Quinn look against veteran Orlando Scandrick or second-year corner Josh Holsey? Will Smith’s ball placement negate Apke’s speed? In the one-on-one pass blocking drills, which emphasize technique over power, can Daron Payne get past Brandon Scherff?

The big guys—With Williams and Moses out, who will line up along the offensive line? Does Payne line up at nose tackle or is he used more as an end with Tim Settle in the middle? Is Ziggy Hood in the middle or will he work outside? How is Phil Taylor looking after a quad injury ended his season in training camp? As noted, the rules make it hard to tell much about linemen before Richmond but we try to glean what we can. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

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My reaction to this tweet from the NFL illustrating the changes to the kickoff rules:

Timeline  

Today’s schedule:Redskins OTA practice 11:30; Jay Gruden and Alex Smith press conferences, players available coming off the field, after practice, approx. 1:30

Days until:

—Minicamp (6/12) 20
—Training camp starts (7/26) 65
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 79

The Redskins last played a game 143 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 109 days. 

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