Arizona State (5-2, 3-1 in Pac-12) at Washington State (4-4, 2-1 in Pac-12)
Kickoff: 7:30 P.M. MST/10:30 EST
Location: Martin Stadium, Pullman, Wash.
Point Spread: Arizona State (-12.5)
TV: ESPN (Rece Davis, Jesse Palmer, Samantha Ponder)
Radio: 620 KTAR AM (Tim Healey, Jeff Van Raaphorst, Doug Franz)
Weather Forecast: Partly cloudy. Around 45 degrees at kickoff. Low of 36.
Series History: The Sun Devils seem to have the Cougars' number as of late, winning nine of the past 10 meetings between the two programs. Arizona State leads the all-time series 24-13-2. The one point the Cougars do have going their way is that they knocked off the Sun Devils in their last visit to Pullman.
Arizona State defeated Washington State 46-7 in the last year's contest in Tempe. The Sun Devils owned a 32-0 halftime lead and led 46-0 heading into the fourth quarter before a the Cougars were able to find the end zone. Todd Graham and Mike Leach will face one another for the second time as coaches of their respective schools.
Washington State's Season to Date
The Cougars are just two wins away from bowl eligibility, but the season isn't getting any easier for Washington State. Mike Leach's squad has put together a 4-4 mark through its first eight games including two impressive Pac-12 victories.
Washington State opened the season with a 31-24 loss at Auburn that looked far less significant at the time of the game. Since that seven-point victory for the Tigers, Auburn his risen through the national rankings and is now sitting at eighth in the country according to the AP poll.
After the first loss, Washington State came back with a shocking 10-7 win against USC at the Coliseum that got the wheels spinning for Lane Kiffin's firing. The Cougars followed that up with consecutive blowouts against Southern Utah and Idaho, before reality began to set in.
Stanford dealt the Cougars their first Pac-12 loss of the season in a 55-17 drubbing in Seattle. Still, the Cougars rebounded against their other Bay Area foe with a a 44-22 win against Cal in the following week.
The past two games haven't been kind to Washington State as the Oregon schools handled the Cougars with ease. Oregon State's Sean Mannion picked apart the Wazzu secondary in a 52-24 Beaver win and Oregon hung 62 points on an overmatched Cougar team in a 62-38 decision.
As it stands, the Cougars are 4-4 on the season with a 2-3 mark in Pac-12 play. Washington State faces Arizona State, Arizona, Utah and rival Washington down the stretch so the fight for bowl eligibility takes on new meaning this week when it hosts the Sun Devils.
Arizona State on Offense
The Sun Devils have displayed two different offenses this season. For four of its games, Arizona State has been an unstoppable machine that won't be denied in its quest for 50 points. In three others, the Sun Devils have looked stagnant, out of sync, and flat-out mediocre at times.
Thursday night's game in Pullman presents a unique challenge because in both of the Sun Devils' road contests this season, the latter form of offense has come to play. In Arizona State's trip to Stanford, the Sun Devils were simply lost in the first half against a menacing Cardinal front that denied Taylor Kelly time in the pocket and Marion Grice running lanes to work with. In Dallas against Notre Dame, three-and-outs and consistent pressure on Kelly led to a discombobulated offense that never really found its groove.
Fortunately for the Sun Devils, Washington State isn't nearly as frightening as Stanford or Notre Dame, but the Cougars can pack a punch. Safety Deone Buchanan is among the best in the Pac-12 and Cyrus Coen and Daryl Monroe are tough to block at the linebacker level.
Arizona State has faced 3-4 fronts throughout the season so adjusting to Washington State's scheme won't be the issue. The question is whether the Sun Devil offense can stay hot in the cool temperatures of Pullman. Kelly doesn't exactly thrive on the road, but Martin Stadium is only five hours away from his home in Eagle, Idaho. Kelly should probably get a decent contingent of fans there to support him, so settling in shouldn't be an issue for the redshirt junior.
Marion Grice continues to excel in the running game and the Sun Devil workhorse will need to be even more reliable this week. Even though Grice hasn't seen D.J. Foster take away carries this season, Foster is nursing an injury and likely won't line up in the backfield at all against the Cougars. If Grice can average five yards per carry and handle the ball at least 20 times, the Sun Devils will be in good position to come away with a win. Everyone knows Grice is getting the ball in the red zone so now it's Washington State's turn to try and stop him.
In the receiving game, the Sun Devils might have to limit Jaelen Strong who's suffering from an ankle injury at the moment. Strong is expected to play, but if he can't go full speed, expect offensive coordinator Mike Norvell to adjust. Kevin Ozier was sensational in Strong's second half absence against Washington, and freshman Cam Smith is beginning to grasp the offense better. Smith is on the verge of a breakout performance, and Washington State might be the right place for it to happen.
Along the line, Todd Graham has reiterated that a strong offensive line is the key for the Sun Devils to win the Pac-12 South. In games the Sun Devils have dominated (See USC and Washington), the line has been marvelous. In losses (See Stanford and Notre Dame), the line has looked listless and over-matched. Center Kody Koebensky knows the Cougars will blitz, and as long as he makes the right calls, the Sun Devils have the athletes to match.
Fans and poll voters are waiting for the Sun Devils to break out of their shell on the road. Washington State's pass defense is among the worst in the conference and its run defense isn't much better, so don't be surprised if Arizona State hits its stride this week. The Sun Devils will look to establish the run on the first drive, and from that point on, expect the wide open attack we're used to seeing.
Arizona State on Defense
Jaxon Hood's return to the lineup did wonders for Arizona State's front seven against Washington. Though Hood didn't take every snap (Davon Coleman actually played a lot in Hood's nose tackle spot), the Sun Devils racked up seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
Washington simply had no running room against Arizona State, but that's not an issue that will worry Mike Leach and the Cougars. Washington State really isn't interested in running the ball anyway, as quarterback Connor Halliday will look to neutralize Arizona State with a quick passing attack.
In last year's 46-7 loss in Tempe, Washington State tried far too many five-step drops and the Arizona State defensive line feasted on the Cougars offense. This year, expect more play-action (Not that play-action will keep Arizona State honest this week) and three-step drops with quick routes. Halliday's yards per attempt is lower than most quarterbacks nationally, and that's a dead giveaway that Leach is asking him to get rid of the football quicker.
The play of the outside linebackers is critical for the Sun Devils this week. Anthony Jones will be asked to cover slot receivers from his SPUR position and Chris Young could drop into coverage as well. Don't be surprised if Graham moves safety Laiu Moeakiola into the SPUR position to give the defense an extra cover man in the short passing game. Moeakiola might be a liability against the outside run, but against Washington State, coaches will take their chances on that concept.
In the secondary, the Sun Devils should look to incorporate more nickel packages this week. An extra defensive back, whether it's Lloyd Carrington or Moeakiola, will help in pass defense and allow Bradford and Sutton to pressure Halliday more effectively. If Arizona State can add to the amount of time it takes Washington State to get the ball off, the Sun Devils will have a better chance at creating turnovers.
Finally, Alden Darby and Damarious Randall must be sound in their alignments and responsibilities this week. Washington State will tempt the safeties by routinely throwing short, but they can't get beat over the top. The minute Darby or Randall begin to cheat, Mike Leach will dial up double-moves from his outside receivers and hit the big play.
There's no doubt that Washington State will pick up yards against the Sun Devils. This game should be far more competitive than last year's blowout in Tempe, but Arizona State can do itself a big favor by holding the Cougars early. The longer Washington State lingers in this game, the more dangerous the threat of an upset becomes. Todd Graham preaches turnovers, but this week, he'll be talking about forcing those turnovers in the first few series to really allow his offense to crack things open.
The Final Breakdown
So much has been made about the Sun Devils' road struggles in the past few years that it's actually become more of a story than it really is. Last season, Arizona State was 4-3 away from Sun Devil Stadium and this year, their two road losses have come against very difficult opponents. Losing to Notre Dame might have been an aberration, but under Todd Graham, the Sun Devils have largely taken care of business on the road.
Coming off of a bye week, Arizona State has had plenty of time to rest, heal up, and scheme for everything the Washington State Cougars can possibly throw at it. The Sun Devils have proven that they do well with extended layoffs under Graham, and this game shouldn't be any different.
Just because an atmosphere is expected to be hostile doesn't mean we can't expect the Sun Devils to thrive. Arizona State went into Tucson last season and executed one of the more miraculous comebacks in Territorial Cup history last season, so it's not like this team is incapable of playing with its back against the wall.
Arizona State has an advantage at nearly every position this week and that should show up on the scoreboard. The Sun Devils are more technically and fundamentally sound than the Cougars, and only an outstanding coaching performance from Mike Leach and an uncharacteristically efficient effort from Connor Halliday can keep Arizona State from winning this game.
Simply put, the Sun Devils have too much firepower to allow themselves to drop another road game. At some point, this offense is going to click away from the friendly confines of Tempe, and that some point should be now. The Sun Devils know they control their own destiny, now it's time for them to show that on the field.
Score Prediction: Arizona State 48, Washington State 24