(Photo: ASU Athletics)
The Arizona State Sun Devils are on the road again, and that might not be a good thing. Todd Graham’s team hasn’t won away from Tempe yet, and Washington State is no pushover.
It’s true, the Cougars are just 4-4 and quarterback Connor Halliday leads the country in interceptions. But Washington State is treating this contest, a Thursday night ESPN game, as its Super Bowl, and if the Sun Devils take the Cougars lightly, we’ll have a repeat of 2011.
We all remember that year, right? It was the game that ultimately marked the beginning of the end for Dennis Erickson as Arizona State’s head coach, when the Sun Devils went to Pullman and did snow angels before the game, instead of warm-ups. The Cougars didn’t take that well, and responded by beating Arizona State, 37-27.
Arizona State wins if: The Sun Devils play Sun Devil football. Sound like Graham? That was the point. All Arizona State really needs to do is keep playing like they have in each of their last two games, dominating wins against Colorado and Washington. If the Sun Devils can put any semblance of pressure on Halliday, they will force turnovers. Turnovers almost always equal points for the Sun Devils, and that should be enough to win this game. Sack Halliday at least three times, force two turnovers and keep giving the ball to Marion Grice; it’s the formula for success in Tempe, and it should be the same formula on the road.
Arizona State is in trouble if: They can’t get any pressure on Halliday. The one thing the Cougars do is throw the ball well, but only if Halliday has time. One thing Mike Leach’s offenses have always done well is avoiding quarterback hits. The quick routes out of multiple spread formations keep teams from pressing and create space underneath. The key for the Sun Devils will be to at least get hands in Halliday’s face. If Carl Bradford and Will Sutton can disrupt Halliday’s timing, life is good. But if they can’t, Halliday is going to have a big day. That’s just the nature of the Cougars offense.
Arizona State loses if: The offense can’t handle playing on the road. If Taylor Kelly struggles, or the cold bothers both Jaelen Strong and DJ Foster, who are battling lower leg injuries, the Cougars are going to win this game. Teams haven’t been able to stack the box against the Sun Devils yet, but that could all change in this one if both Strong and Foster are hobbled. The Cougars are going to score a few points; this won’t be a shutout. But if the defense produces good field position all night, we could be in for another Sun Devil let down.
Prediction: Arizona State wins, 55-20. This one has the makings of a blowout. The Sun Devils have had nearly two weeks to prepare for the Cougars, Washington State is a wreck right now, and Arizona State has too much talent. The key is Marion Grice, who is finding his groove and could be a late entrant back into the Heisman race if the Sun Devils win out. Most of the points for the Cougars will come late in this one, when it won’t matter.