1) Get Your Mind Right
This one concept alone is probably the only real “key” to an ASU victory. The reality is that if the Sun Devils play to their capabilities, they will win. But for whatever reason, college football is never that easy. Just ask Steve Sarkisian why his Huskies didn’t show up in Tempe last weekend. It happens, especially on the road. Players get distracted, uncomfortable or overconfident.
This particular match-up has the added bonus of being nationally televised on a Halloween night at a campus that has canceled classes to support the game. Plus, kickoff temperature is supposed to be 35 degrees. All these details by themselves are probably insignificant, but in totality, can cause a problem.
The bottom line result is this: Washington State will bring their very best to this game. Because of the hype, the exposure and the crowd, they will be pumped up to play. But just as important is the fact that the Cougars want to go to a bowl game. They have to win two more games to get a shot at one. Getting wins on the road will be tough for them, so home games is where they have to make their stand. Expect Washington State to play with urgency and desperation.
The Sun Devils have to match the intensity and focus of the Cougars if they want to win. It’s safe to say that head coach Todd Graham and his staff has kept the players focused during this 10-day prep, but the true focus has to come from within — from the players.
If ASU comes out dropping passes, missing assignments and making mistakes in the kicking game, they’ll get beat.
The leadership of this team would be wise to just look back at how Washington came into Sun Devil Stadium last weekend ranked higher and picked to win, but didn’t bring their A game.
2) Confuse Connor Halliday
The Cougars have no running game to speak of. Their QB, Connor Halliday, is not really a running threat, in the sense that he is not a legitimate dual threat type of player. Because of this, they are overwhelmingly a drop-back pass-happy offense. ASU should take advantage of this situation. The Devils need to throw lots of different looks at Halliday; different coverages, disguised coverages, different blitzes and line stunts from everywhere.
One would also expect to see more “nickel” defense from ASU. Maybe even some “dime” coverage as well. These are defensive packages where defensive linemen will come out of the game and are replaced by defensive backs. The assumption will be that the three-four rushers will get decent pressure on Halliday and leave five-six DBs to cover their receivers. ASU might even flirt with having only five men in the box. The Sun Devils should experiment with all of these looks and try to confuse/surprise the Cougars.
3) Be Who You Are on Offense
Sounds silly, but it’s true. A cold night, an electric atmosphere and everyone is talking about how the ASU defense will handle the Cougar’s “Air Raid” attack. Meanwhile, nobody seems to be discussing the ASU offense. The Sun Devils can put an end to all that by just doing what they do on offense. They need to keep Taylor Kelly free from pressure and let him throw to multiple talented receivers. They need to pound it with their zone read scheme where they give the ball to Marion Grice and Deantre Lewis or keep it with Kelly as a runner.
The Washington State defense has some talent, but they are not that tough, especially up front. Moving the chains and scoring points will win the game for ASU.
4) Put an End to Kicking Game Woes
Even in the blowout victory over Washington, ASU still had problems on kickoff coverage and punt return. These two units have got to play better. If you want to let an underdog team stick around and pull off an upset, muff some punts and let them have long kick returns. That will give them momentum and fire up the crowd.
ASU cannot let that happen.
To close, it’s mostly a mental or psychological task ahead for Arizona State. The Sun Devils have not played well on the road the past few seasons. The players have been reminded of that. ASU also has not played well immediately after being ranked. And they have not done well in high-exposure, nationally-televised games (they’ve been reminded of that, as well). So it’s time to see if this team really is hungry or not.
It’s not hard to be the underdog at home. Being favored on the road in a hostile environment is much more difficult. But performing in these circumstances is what separates champions from pretenders. There is no doubt that the game plan will be sound. There’s no question that ASU has the talent. Now, the Devils have to make it work on a loud, cold, wet night at the Palouse. They cannot let “unfamiliar” surroundings or the long, weird travel plan throw them off. And when a bad play happens, they cannot doubt themselves and succumb to all the talk about road performances, bad weather performances or any other propaganda.
On Thursday night, the Sun Devils need to play for love of the game and with the purpose of proving to themselves and everybody else that they are for real.