In many ways, Saturday’s Arizona State-Washington State game in Tempe, Arizona, will be a tale of two communities — not to mention two long-suffering fan bases. Around the ASU campus, fans have endured several decades of mediocre football (thanks to the Dirk Koetter and Dennis Erickson eras), all but wiping out memories of the success achieved by legendary Sun Devil coach Frank Kush. On the Palouse of Eastern Washington, WSU fanatics still long for the glory days of Mike Price and Ryan Leaf.
Coming into the 2012 season, both schools were buoyed by the hiring of new, promising head coaches: upstart Todd Graham left Pitt on short notice to take over at ASU, while swashbuckling Mike Leach was lured to Pullman to lead Washington State. With week 12 of this year’s campaign upon us, supporters of the respective schools are now faced with answering the proverbial “glass half-full or half-empty” question.
Let’s first look at Washington State. The Cougars are just starting to become familiar with Leach’s unorthodox coaching style, which has produced mixed results both on and off the field. The team thus far has posted a 2-8 record, losing seven straight games. But last week, hosting No. 18 UCLA, WSU put forth a valiant effort, scoring three touchdowns in the game’s final 16 minutes en-route to a respectable 44-36 loss.
At Arizona State, a promising 5-1 start against relatively weak opponents has gone sour, resulting in a four-game losing streak. Traumatic loses to Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and USC have left many Sun Devil fans wondering if their team is ready for prime time, and questioning the play calling of first-year offensive coordinator Mike Novell.
To complicate matters further, ASU’s always-important Territorial Cup match-up against hated rival University of Arizona is looming on the horizon.
The Arizona State-Washington State contest may be a battle of attrition, as much as anything else. The last few weeks have been a struggle for the Sun Devil offense, and quarterback Taylor Kelly and his teammates shouldn’t count on a break against Wazzu. The Cougars’ new 3-4 scheme has created a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and in recent games, ASU’s offensive line has been anything but stellar in protecting the passer.
Arizona State’s productive rushing attack has also stalled of late, with standout freshman D.J. Foster and juco transfer Marion Grice seeing fewer carries (and gaining less yards), and starter Cameron Marshall persisting in his senior year slump. ASU’s hopes for a win against Washington State depend on getting this talented trio of running backs involved in the game early…and often.
A good share of the blame for Arizona State’s offensive woes — and Kelly’s recent struggles in the pocket — must go to its wide receiving corps. The inability of WRs Rashad Ross, Kevin Ozier and Jamal Miles to get open has made the Sun Devils’ offense predictable and one-dimensional. It is critical for this group to match Leach’s “Air Raid” attack yard-for-yard, and point-for-point.
The ASU defense is still recovering from a rash of mid-season injuries, which left the unit without star linemen Will Sutton and Junior Onyeali for all or part of several games. Even with these key players on the field, the Devil defense has had some difficulty stopping the run. Sutton, Onyeali and Co. should have a productive afternoon harassing WSU quarterback Jeff Tuel, who can be expected to throw 40-50 passes on any given outing, but now lacks the services of departed WR Marquess Wilson (the first self-proclaimed victim of the Leach regime).
As we’ve already publicly stated, Saturday’s game is a must-win situation for Arizona State (The Cougars, on the other hand, have little motivation other than pride and their fear of Leach.). Beat Washington State convincingly, and bowl eligibility — not to mention momentum against UofA — could be on ASU’s side. Lose this game, and the wrath of the Sun Devil nation will fall on the heads of Graham and his staff.
It must be stressed: ASU has every reason to play well at home, in a crucial game, against an over-matched opponent. Nothing short of a “W” is acceptable, in this blogger’s opinion.
DevilsInDetail.com Prediction: Arizona State: 31, Washington State: 17