ASU vs. Washington State: The first look at the Cougars

Connor Halliday leads an improved Washington State team into Thursday night's showdown. - William Mancebo

Arizona State will travel to Pullman, Washington for a critical Thursday night matchup next week.

Heading into the season, all of the hype surrounding the Arizona State Sun Devils schedule circled around a four-game gauntlet consisting of Wisconsin, Stanford, USC, and Notre Dame.

Now that the Sun Devils have emerged from that slate and opened the back half of their schedule with a dominant win against Washington, it's time to play the easy games, right? Not so fast. Arizona State's upcoming games all look to be more difficult than they were once perceived, and the Washington State matchup is a prime example.

The Cougars are 4-4 on the season, but they've made marked improvements in their second year under head coach Mike Leach. The offense is geared toward a high-octane passing attack, and Washington State has a few playmakers on defense with the potential to swing a game one way or another.

Washington State has also turned the game against Arizona State into its marquee home contest of the season. The Cougars cancelled Friday classes to encourage student support for the evening start time on Halloween, and a national television crew from ESPN will be broadcasting the game.

Needless to say, it's no time for the Sun Devils to turn back and let their guard down. Washington State means business.

The First Look

Season to Date

In the first game of its season, Washington State traveled into Auburn to take on the Tigers in a matchup of two teams expected to finish in the lower half of their respective conferences. The Tigers escaped with a 31-24 victory, and no one thought much of the result. That is, until the Tigers vaulted into the 11th spot in the BCS rankings.

Auburn has surprised everyone this season, and the Cougars' narrow loss is a testament to the talent on this team. Though they couldn't come away with their first road win against an SEC squad, Mike Leach's boys did fare better against a Pac-12 opponent.

The Cougars shocked the USC Trojans at the Coliseum the following week in what was the beginning of the downward spiral for former USC coach Lane Kiffin. The 10-7 victory showed Wazzu could play a little defense, even though no one thought much of USC's offense at that point in the year.

After evening up their record at 1-1, the Cougars jumped out to 3-1 on the season with consecutive blowout wins against Southern Utah and Idaho back in Pullman.

A week after shutting out the Vandals, the Cougars snapped back to reality in a 55-17 loss against the Stanford Cardinal. However, the other Bay Area team had trouble against Washington State, as Cal fell by a three touchdown margin in a 44-22 decision down in Berkeley.

Since they split the Bay Area schools, the Cougars have taken on the likes of Oregon State and Oregon in consecutive weeks. Suddenly, things took a turn for the worse. The upstart Beavers pounded Washington State in a 52-24 decision and the Cougars didn't fare much better against Oregon, losing 62-38.

Though Wazzu couldn't pull off the upset in Eugene, the Cougars did make national headlines after Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti criticized Leach and the Washington State offense for throwing the ball up until the very end of the game with the outcome already in hand.

Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday set the NCAA record by throwing 89 passes in the loss against Oregon, and you can expect him to toss the rock in a prolific manner when the Sun Devils come to town on Thursday.

Head Coach: Mike Leach

Record: 91-56

At Washington State (2 Seasons): 7-13, 3-11 in Pac-12

At Texas Tech (10 seasons): 84-43, 47-33 in Big-12

Offense

There really isn't much to say about the philosophy of the Washington State offense, because all defenses it faces know that the Cougars are going to pass in nearly situation they encounter. Whether it's first and 10 or 3rd and short, Washington State feels more comfortable throwing the ball.

The Cougars are sixth in the nation in passing offense with 373.1 yards per game while the rushing offense has made improvements from last season, but still ranks 123rd out of 125 teams at 58.4 yards per game.

The difference between last season and this season for Washington State is that it's scoring more frequently. The Cougars were listless at times in 2012, but they've already put up three 40-point games and a 38-point mark against Oregon.

Quarterback Connor Halliday is the man in charge of slinging the football and he can now add NCAA-record holder to his resume with those 89 pass attempts against Oregon. Halliday has thrown for 2,798 yards and 18 touchdowns this year, but his 17 interceptions are a significant drawback.

Teondray Caldwell began the season as the No. 1 back on the depth chart, but Caldwell has seen his carries decline with the emergence of Macrus Mason. Caldwell's 5.1 yards per carry is superior to Mason's 4.4 ypc mark, yet neither averages more than 26 yards per game. Both are talented, and both are a far cry from Bishop Sankey.

The Cougars' receiving corps is deep this year and they have a number of different players who Halliday can call upon at any point. Gabe Marks is the top threat and his 59 catches are fifth in the nation. Marks averages 11.1 yards per catch, and most of Washington State's receivers average relatively small numbers because of the quick passing attack.

Halliday actually has seven other receivers with at least 20 receptions this year, so there's no guessing who's going to get the ball. Ricky Galvin and Kristoff Williams are the second and third top targets out wide for Halliday, but he also loves to find Marcus Mason out of the backfield. Dominique William has top end speed so the Sun Devil secondary will need to watch out for him.

Along the offensive line, the Gunnar Eklund and Elliot Bosch are second-year starters. Rico Forbes is the starting right tackle and he was a recruit the Cougars were high on before he suffered various injuries throughout his career. It's tough to peg exactly how talented the Washington State offensive line is because it's not asked to do the same things that other teams ask of their linemen.

Washington State linemen won't be asked to run block much, and in pass pro, the coaching staff wants Halliday releasing the ball as quickly as possible to prevent sacks or other miscues.

The Cougars have the potential to put up a lot of points, and if they get the home crowd into the game early, Arizona State will have to find a way to neutralize the passing attack by potentially shifting its scheme to a nickel package.

On Defense

The Cougars' defense has improved in year two under Mike Leach, and they are actually allowing just under 30 points per game at the moment. That number should balloon when the high-flying Sun Devil offense comes to town, because Arizona State has scored at least 32 points in all seven games and put up at least 50 points in all five wins.

Strong safety Deone Buchanan is the clear-cut leader of this defense and he was a first-team midseason All-Pac-12 selection by Phil Steele. Buchanan's 73 tackles put him on another planet compared to the rest of the Cougar defense, and his four interceptions are tied for a team lead. Ball carries beware, Buchanan already has three forced fumbles this year.

Buchanan is joined in the secondary by free safety Taylor Taliulu, who should expect to see the majority of the Sun Devils' downfield passes thrown to his side of the field.

At corner, Damante Horton and Nolan Washington should get the starting nods and Taylor Kelly has to be wary of throwing in Horton's direction as well. The senior has four interceptions including two in the Cougars' upset of USC. Daquawn Washington also figures prominently in the defensive backfield, and we should expect to see him on the field a lot.

At the linebacker level, the Cougars boast a pair of strong tacklers in Cyrus Coen and Daryl Monroe who man the inside linebacker spots in the 3-4 scheme. The pair has been equally effective this season with 49 tackles, three sacks and at least 5.5 tackles for loss apiece.

The outside linebackers are players the Sun Devils will look to attack in both the running and passing game. Justin Sagote is in his second season as a starter, but the JUCO transfer has struggled at holding the edge at times this year. Meanwhile, Kache Palacio and Destiny Vaeao have split time on the other side of the field.

From a defensive line standpoint, nose tackle Ioane Gauta is the man in the middle of all the action. The senior from Southern California is a tad undersized at 285 pounds, but he's still the most effective defensive linemen. His 6.5 tackles for loss are quite a bit for a 3-4 nose tackle, and the Cougars will count on him to slow down Marion Grice before he gets going.

Gauta has the advantage of playing alongside Xavier Cooper who handles the defensive end position relatively well. Cooper's 9.5 tackles for loss lead Washington State, and the redshirt sophomore has improved significantly during his time under Leach. Last season, Cooper was an all Pac-12 Honorable Mention and he has similar potential if he finishes the season strong this year.

The Cougars' initiative this season is to make a bowl game. While the team is built on its offense, the defense may actually possess more talent and have a better shot at helping this team reach the coveted six-win mark. Washington State is running out of opportunities with eight games already under its belt, so you can bet the coaching staff will mix in a few special ingredients when it cooks up the game plan for Arizona State.

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