(Photo: ASU Athletics)
Playoff hopes for the No. 13 Arizona State Sun Devils (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12 South) took a major hit after a loss at Oregon State last weekend. Now the Sun Devils must turn their attention to the team tied with OSU for last place in the Pac-12 North: the Washington State Cougars (3-7, 2-5 Pac-12 North).
The game is in Tempe which should help the Sun Devils but as all Arizona State fans learned last week, no win is guaranteed.
Snapshot of Washington State
Washington State can be a fun team to watch because they throw the ball a lot, averaging almost 65 pass attempts per game.
However, they will be without senior quarterback Connor Halliday, who broke his leg early in the first quarter against USC three weeks ago. Earlier this season, against California, Halliday set an NCAA record with 734 passing yards, going 49-for-70. He still currently leads the nation in passing attempts (526), completions (354), passing yardage (3,973) and passing touchdowns (32).
Luke Falk, Halliday’s replacement, is a true freshman, which would probably have most coaches changing up the gameplan. But Mike Leach isn’t most coaches. In seven-plus quarters, Falk has thrown 118 passes (completing 82) for 817 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception.
The problem with the Cougars’ offense is the lack of true balance. The Cougars are running the ball about 20 times per game, contrary to the belief that they pass on literally every down, but they are only averaging about two yards per carry (which ranks 124th in the country). This allows defensive units to focus on the Cougars’ quick passing game.
Another problematic area for Washington State is turnovers on both sides of the ball. The Cougars have turned the ball over at least once in eight games this season. Their 17 total turnovers has them tied at 60th in the nation, which is not great but it’s also not terrible. A few of the teams they are tied with are Ohio State, Auburn and Texas A&M.
What is bad for the Cougars, is the fact the defense has only taken the ball away seven times this season. Only nine teams in the country have a worse turnover margin than the Cougars’ minus-10.
Forcing turnovers is not the only area the defense has struggled in for Washington State this season. The Cougars are 106th in total defense, giving up 454 yards per game and 116th in points allowed at 38 per game.
Matchup to Watch
Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster vs. the Washington State secondary
Washington State is giving up 308 passing yards per game– 124th out of 125 teams in FBS. Seven receivers have recorded 100 or more yards against the Cougars this season including USC’s Nelson Agholor (220 yards), Oregon State’s Victor Boldin (126 yards), and Oregon’s Devon Allen (142) and Keanon Lowe (104). Five of the seven receivers caught fewer than 10 passes.
With Strong’s ability to stretch the field and Foster’s ability to get yards after the catch, both should have big games against the Cougars, even if Taylor Kelly continues to struggle.
ASU Wins If…
They don’t strategize themselves out of position.
In the Sun Devils’ loss to Oregon State last week, the defense was out of position on many of the Beavers’ big plays, not necessarily by mistake but by design. The Sun Devils brought pressure off the edge, which is their M.O., but this made it easier for the Beavers to block downfield on running plays, or get receivers open in the secondary.
A majority of Washington State’s passes are within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and the plays are designed to get receivers in space to rack up yards after the catch. The Sun Devils can expect a lot of quick hitches, slants and screens.
The Sun Devils can still blitz, but they need to gameplan for all these quick throws to limit yards after the catch, while also keeping an eye deep down the field to avoid allowing a big play over the top. If they do that, they’ll win.
ASU Loses If…
They are so mentally torn down from last week’s loss and/or looking ahead to Arizona they take this matchup lightly.
This seems like a ridiculous scenario, but last year after Oregon lost to Stanford and was all but eliminated from the BCS title race, they went down to Arizona a few weeks later and lost 42-16.
Arizona State’s loss last week basically eliminates them from playoff contention (unless there it total chaos) and puts control of the Pac-12 South back into UCLA’s hands. If the Sun Devils take on the attitude of some the fans that the season is over, they could lose this game.
Also, if the Sun Devils are caught looking ahead to their rivalry game against Arizona, which could be the biggest game between the two schools in decades, they could lose. The Sun Devils need to look at this game as a one-game season.
ASU 42, WSU 31