After losing their fourth consecutive game, the Sun Devils hope to regain some of their early season momentum in a must-win affair against a struggling Washington State squad.
At 5-5 and sitting on the cusp of bowl eligibility, Arizona State has their best opportunity to cross the threshold this week against a Cougars team that has lost all seven of their Pac-12 contests.
For the Sun Devils to be successful, they have to overcome the mental toll that a losing streak takes and retain their dominance against inferior teams. Excluding their loss to Missouri, Arizona State has compiled a record of 5-0 against unranked opponents with an average margin of victory of 32.4 points.
The Sun Devils have proven themselves against lesser competition and this week offers another opportunity to show off the progress made in the Todd Graham era.
Below, I list my five keys to victory for the Sun Devils this Saturday.
1) Win The Turnover Battle
Playing at home, the Sun Devils figure to be favored by a decent margin against a 2-8 Washington State team. The key to any upset is forcing turnovers, and the Sun Devils have committed their fair share over the past few weeks.
Against UCLA, the Cougars kept it close by forcing three turnovers. If Washington State did not commit three turnovers of their own, the final score might look a little different.
The Sun Devils go as Taylor Kelly goes. When Taylor Kelly does not throw an interception, the Sun Devils are 5-0. When Kelly throws a pick, the Devils are winless. Memo to the Sun Devils: Hold on to the football.
2) Establish a Workhorse
Since Marion Grice's 107-yard effort on opening night against Northern Arizona, no Sun Devil rusher has eclipsed the 100-yard mark this season. Aside from Cameron Marshall's 98-yard output against Colorado, no Sun Devil rusher has accounted for more than 80 yards on the ground in a single game.
Arizona State is home to three of the most talented running backs in the conference and it's time to let one of them loose.
The Sun Devils have struggled in the second half of games this season because they are unable to wear their opponents down with the ground attack. Marshall and Grice have the potential to punish defenders between the tackles yet too often they are found catching passes out of the backfield.
Splitting time among three backs is a nice luxury, but a win over Washington State demands a grinder to take the lion's share of the carries and force Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell to play the hot hand.
3) Keep the Defense off the Field
Washington State possesses a pass-happy offense with the ability for quick strike touchdowns. Logic says that time of possession is not important against a team like the Cougars, but the Sun Devils cannot afford to gamble.
In each of their past four games, Arizona State has surrendered no less than 36 points. At times, the Sun Devils have been torched through the air because of their inability to stop speedy receivers (See Marquise Lee).
The more time the Sun Devil defense can spend on the sidelines means the more time they will have to catch their breath and make adjustments.
Even with a 2-8 record, Mike Leach treats the football field like a chessboard. The Sun Devils need every second they can get to prepare their counterattack to Leach's next move.
4) Protect the Quarterback
In Saturday's contest against USC, the Sun Devil offensive line committed an atrocious total of seven sacks. The line has to be Coach Graham's biggest recruiting priority, but in the meantime, the current group has to show immediate improvement.
Pressuring the quarterback is one of the few statistical categories in which the Cougars defense stacks up well in as they rank 17th nationally with 2.8 sacks per game. If the game does turn into a shootout, the Cougars ability to pressure the quarterback could be the difference maker.
The Sun Devils know they won't have much time to throw the ball, so the offensive line needs to set realistic goals and at least provide enough time for Taylor Kelly to find a running back or tight end on a short route.
5) Give em' Hell, Seniors
Unless the Sun Devils land a miracle berth in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Saturday marks the final home game for the Arizona State seniors. Though their work is still unfinished, Senior Day is an opportunity for Devils fans to appreciate the dedication these players showed to the Arizona State program.
Todd Graham credits the leadership and commitment of the upperclassmen for his success in transitioning to the desert. Remember, these guys labored through the Dennis Erickson era to give hope to up and comers like Michael Eubank and D.J. Foster.
When Sun Devil standouts like Cameron Marshall, Brandon Magee, Jamal Miles, and Deveron Carr take the field on Saturday, they bring many fond memories with them. The seniors will play with fire and passion, and here's hoping their play lifts the Sun Devils to victory.
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