By James Romo for DieHardDevil.com
After a four game losing streak, the Sun Devils need this one bad. ASU will step on the field today for what all of Sun Devil Nation is hoping isn’t another game in a late season collapse. We can easily point to a 2012 schedule that was back loaded with the most talented teams in the conference. That part is true. But when you’re playing the worse team in the conference (at least conference record-wise), this is when it’s time to get back to blowing people out and sending them back to their campus for a long ride home. After ten games, most of us still trying to determine the identity of this ASU football team. Do they have character? Yes, absolutely. Do they have talent? At some positions, yes they do. Do they have the heart and fire to fight adversity, and finish the season on a strong note? You tell me. We’re about to find out on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Tempe today. To add to the game day atmosphere, it’s Senior Day and DieHard Sun Devils like Brandon Magee, Cam Marshall, Keelan Johnson, Deveron Carr and James Morrison are scheduled to play their last game in Sun Devil Stadium. One can only imagine that the underclassmen have enough reverence for these team leaders to play their hearts out to send them off of Frank Kush Field for the last time with a victory.
We can continue to break down what the relative strengths and weaknesses of each team are every week. That’s the easy part…Just watch film and it’ll jump out at you and hit you in the face. At this point in the season, it comes down to what the psyche is for each respective team is coming into this game. The two teams have combined for an 0-11 record over the past several weeks. ASU started the season 5-1 with big hopes of winning the Pac-12 South Division, but have lost 4 straight and are no longer in contention. The Cougars haven’t won in the past 9 weeks. Here’s the big difference…Wazzu is playing with house money and have nothing to lose at this point in the season. I would expect that they’d all prefer to have the focus on upsetting ASU versus continuing to talk about their distractions off the field. ASU is trying to salvage what was, at one point, an extremely ambitious start to the season after facing so many question marks all over the field in fall camp. WSU is facing a myriad of distractions after all-time leading Cougar receiver Marquess Wilson abruptly walked out of a work-out, officially left the team, and wrote a scathing letter about the state of the team under new Head Coach Mike Leach. Now both the Pac-12 and NCAA have stated their intent to investigate the allegations by Wilson, which can’t help the focus of a team. If I’m a Cougar player, I’m looking to upset ASU just to get the focus off the negativity that’s surrounded my team for the better part of the season.
Washington State Offense
On offense, the “Air Raid” attack that the “Pirate” (Coach Leach) employs is currently the #1 ranked passing offense in the Pac-12, averaging 360.1 yards/game. Conversely, ASU is still the best pass defense, allowing only 176.3 yards/game. Here’s the thing, ASU has given up “explosive” plays over the past several weeks that they hadn’t early on in the season. Big plays are a very distinct possibility this weekend. For ASU, the game plan should be pretty easy…Drop into nickel or dime defensive coverage shells and force Wazzu to beat you on the ground. Trouble is, ASU doesn’t have a true nickel or dime back that that can play the majority of snaps to take away all that down field space. Not likely, but I really hope they’ve developed one in the past week. What I see happening for ASU is that they will create as much pressure with their front four to disrupt that Wazzu aerial attack. WSU definitely has guys who can make plays. Even without their top receiver, guys like Brett Bartolone, Dominique Williams, and Gabe Marks will torch an unprepared secondary and linebacker core if you give them space. The ASU secondary will have their hands full defending and trying to catch their breath covering the track meet that is the “air-raid” offense. Wazzu has an almost non-existent running game which should allow the ASU front four to pin their ears back and bring the noise with a relentless pass rush. RB Teondray Caldwell is the Cougar leading rusher with only 249 total yards rushing. But make no mistake, Coach Leach hasn’t won as many games over an impressive career without being able to take what the defense gives him. I predict a shoot-out. If I was a betting man, I’d bet the over on this game whatever Vegas thinks it should be.
Washington State Defense
On defense, the Cougars are allowing 428.1 yards/game. That should be exactly what the doctor ordered for an ASU offense that has struggled to extend drives and put up points against the better teams in the conference. And again, most fans already know that ASU has an inept receiving core who has yet to show that they can even shake single coverage for big gains. As a result, it will be imperative to get the rushing attack going to open up the rest of what has been a limited play book for the past four weeks. The Cougar defense lines up in a 3-4 front and has done a nice job of getting off the field after putting some pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Another thing to watch today…Can ASU sustain drives and keep them off balance using a fast tempo offense. The limited touches that RB Marion Grice and slot receiver DJ Foster have gotten recently has been a head-scratcher. Opening up the horizontal game in the flat to Grice and Foster will go a long way in creating 2nd and 3rd and short yardage situations. At the end of the day, the offensive line and receiving core has got to improve their play this week. And finding a way to get the ball into the hands of the play makers on offense is going to be imperative. One more thing, Taylor Kelly should never be the leading rusher on a team who has such a deep backfield.
Vegas has ASU as a 22 point favorite and those guys are pretty good at what they do. However, this game will be determined by the level of intensity and focus that each team shows up with. With that in mind, this Sun Devil team has something to play for. Not only a 7-5 record and a decent bowl game that is still within reach, but also to respect and honor the seniors during their last game at Sun Devil Stadium. Getting there starts today by taking care of business against a clearly inferior opponent. Look for the Sun Devils to get back in the win column today against Washington State, and gain some much needed momentum to end the season. Coach Graham, the players, the seniors and all the fans in Sun Devil Nation all need this one bad.