All season long (or at least since in conference play) the rhetoric to describe this Cougar team has been the same:
The offense is capable but the defense is awful.
Looking at the points allowed, the yards per carry, the total defense, and seeing live the ease with which opposing offensive move down the field, it is really hard to refute that. However, there is at least one metric that says this WSU defense belongs more in the realm of "average" than "cover your eyes terrible." The Defensive S&P statistic over at Football Outsiders.
If you are not familiar with how these numbers are derived, I STRONGLY encourage you to go here for a quick explanation. These statistics are measured on a play-by-play basis, alleviating some of the small sample size issues that plague college football numbers. They are also heavily adjusted for strength of schedule, and for the Cougs that is the key point to focus on.
Right now, the Washington State defense is ranked 53rd in defensive S&P. According to those rankings the Cougars have a slightly above average defense.
How can that be possible when the Cougs are giving up 40 points a game?
The fact of the matter is WSU has played some of the toughest offenses in the nation on a weekly basis. In order (excluding Montana State) the Cougs have played the #7, 39, 12, 40, 10, 35, and 22 rated teams in offensive S&P. This defense has not gotten a break and essentially they are letting the opposition do to them what they have done to almost every team they've played (UCLA notwithstanding, but the Bruins have been one of the top rushing offenses in the country).
With this week comes the first real break in the season for the defense, as Arizona State sits as the 74th ranked offense in S&P. That is a significant drop from anyone the Cougs have faced thus far, and the Sun Devils may be even worse than their ranking. Starting quarterback Steven Threet is questionable for Saturday's game and they may be forced send out third stringer Samson Szakacsy.
Furthermore, ASU also does not really excel in any part of their attack, ranking 68th in rushing S&P and 75th in passing. As far as matchups go, the best for the Cougs is on passing downs. The Sun Devils have been awful in that situation, 91st overall. The WSU defense has performed very well when a pass is likely, as they are 22nd in the country. If Arizona State is playing without their starting quarterback, then that becomes even more lopsided for Wazzu.
So don't be surprised if Washington State comes out and plays a pretty good defensive game against ASU. The advanced numbers say this is as favorable a matchup on that side of the ball as there has been all year. If they are forcing more punts and making more plays come this Saturday, you'll be smart and know that this isn't anything new or unexpected. It was something this group had in them the whole time.