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WSU Vs. Arizona State: A First Look At The Sun Devils

One can only assume that USC quarterback Matt Barkley is wetting his pants as ASU middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict calls him out.
One can only assume that USC quarterback Matt Barkley is wetting his pants as ASU middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict calls him out.

In a game where Washington State is clearly overmatched on both sides of the ball, fans will go searching for any sort of hope that the Cougs can pull off an upset.  This Satuday they are looking to the weather forecast in hopes of seeing the warm-weather Sun Devils struggle in near-freezing temperatures on the Palouse. There is also a chance of snow when it gets late (and this game starts at 7:30) so that only adds to the weather-based excitement some may be trying to conjure up.

Of course, in Pullman, bringing a warm-weather team into a bad weather situation doesn't always produce the desired results. There are two games in particular that come to my mind when thinking about our southern conference foes making the November trek to Pullman. Both occurred on Dad's weekend, and both left myself and many of other Cougs cold, wet, and miserable.

In 2006, WSU welcomed the Arizona Wildcats into town fresh off a blowout of the UCLA Bruins. The Cougs were ranked 25th and held a 6-3 record. It was cold, as is typical in Pullman this time of year, and as the game went on the rain came down. By the end, most of the fans were saturated and WSU had been "upset" by Arizona to start a season-ending three-game losing streak.  Washington State played from behind the entire second half, and struggled to get anything going on offense.  The bad weather that was supposed to be giving them an advantage over the desert-dwellers was giving them fits.

In 2004, USC came to town with a #1 ranking, Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Lendale White, and Mike Williams.  The temperature was very cold and as the two teams were warming up, snow/hail/something white began to fall from the sky.  The Cougar student section let out a loud cheer and, directly in front of them, the USC players did the same. The start of the game was probably the worst start to a football game I've ever seen. WSU tried an onside kick that went sideways and was recovered by USC, who scored minutes later. The ensuing kickoff was caught by the wind, and WSU's kick returners were unable to field it. USC recovered the ball at the WSU 21. A few plays later, it was 14-0 before WSU's offense had even touched the ball. By halftime it was 42-0. The Trojans didn't look at all affected by the cold and wet weather.

So don't expect ASU to play poorly because of the weather. They will likely barely notice the cold once they are moving around. Now, am I saying that the Sun Devils won't be affected by the weather? Of course not. Maybe they'll come out like the 1992 Huskies in the Snow Bowl and be shivering on the sideline. Maybe they will still be down about losing control of the Pac-12 South last week at UCLA and the cold will only make it worse. It is possible, but it is probably more likely that they won't be thinking much about the weather come gametime.

Offense and Defense previews after the jump.

OFFENSE: 35.0 PPG, 6.1 YPP, #28 S&P

When ASU was predicted to contend for the Pac-12 South title in the preseason it was their defense that was getting most of the publicity, but their offense has been no slouch.  Junior quarterback Brock Osweiler was a bit of a wild card coming into the season, and a lot of the offense's performance hinged on his development. He has performed at a high level and the Sun Devils have flourished.

In his first full season as a starter, Osweiler has completed 64.9% of his passes for 7.8 yards per attempt with 19 touchdowns to eight interceptions. The Sun Devils are ranked 34th overall in passing S&P and that stays pretty consistent on passing downs, where they are still above average and ranked 38th. 

Osweiler has definitely been helped by a veteran receiving corps. Three of his four top targets are seniors. Gerrell Robinson leads the team in catches, yards, and yards per catch. He has caught 73 passes for 17.69 yards per catch average. Junior wideout Jamal Miles is a guy that the Sun Devils like to utilize in different ways in short passes and runs.  He's caught 41 passes this season, for just a 6.73 average, but has also carried the ball 24 times for a 195 yards. Look for ASU to try to get him in space where he can make a play.

The Sun Devils' running game has also been very effective this season. S&P has them ranked #24 in rushing, where they are about 20% better than the average FBS attack. Junior Cameron Marshall gets the vast majority of the touches out of the backfield.  He has carried the ball 164 times this season for nice-and-tidy 800 yards and 13 touchdowns.  Don't expect to see many carries out of other running backs. The next three most frequent ball carriers are Osweiler, wide receiver Kyle Middlebrooks, and the aforementioned Miles. The Sun Devils average over 35 rushing attempts a game, but only about half of those come from the running back position. Look for some unorthodox sets on Saturday.

The Washington State Cougars' defense will be tested once again on Saturday. They've struggled throughout the season, and pass defense in particular seems to be regressing. Against the Sun Devils, they will face another talented passing game that can get big chunks of yardage at a time (three wideouts average better than 13 yards a catch).  Expect to see ASU move the ball very effectively against the Cougs.

DEFENSE: 22.3 PPG, 5.7 YPP, #34 S&P

ASU's defense is led by one of the best middle linebackers in the country in Vontaze Burfict. Burfict is a bit of a freak of nature. He is big enough (250 pounds) to take on lineman and get to the quarterback, but he is also fast enough to cover the entire field in pass and rush defense. His struggles with bonehead after-the-play personal foul penalties were what garnered him the most attention in years past, but this season he seems to have toned that down and it has taken a backseat to his talent level. Cougar fans will assuredly see him chasing after Marshall Lobbestael/Connor Halliday on frequent occasions and making plays all over the field.

Outside of Burfict, this Sun Devil defense has been good overall.  As was the case last week against Cal, they are likely going to pose some huge problems for Washington State.  Just like the Golden Bears, ASU excels in pass defense, where they are ranked #23nd overall and about 22% better than average. WSU had their worst passing game of the season a week ago, and Arizona State will not provide a respite in that department.

More bad news for the Cougs is that Arizona State is above average in defending standard downs. Last week, the story of the game was WSU's inability to pick up yardage on 1st and 2nd down, leaving them in third and long situations. This could very well happen again against an ASU defense that is 11.8% better than average at defending non-passing downs.

The Sun Devils' (just like Cal's) biggest weakness is in the run game, but it not necessarily a killer for them. They are still slightly (5.8%) above average and ranked 50th overall against the run. YPC may provide some hope for Coug fans, as ASU is giving up 5.18 yards per carry adjusted for sacks. The problem there may be that WSU's most effective running back, Rickey Galvin, runs best outside the tackles. With the speed on Arizona State's defense, that could be very difficult.

As for the the top performers on ASU's defense and names Glenn Johnson may be calling frequently, obviously Burfict tops the list. He leads the team in sacks, with 5.0, as well as tackles for loss, with 7.0. On the defensive line, senior Jamaar Jarrett leads the way with 5.5 tackles for loss. Overall, ASU has done a very good job of getting into the opponent's backfield with 6.0 tackles for loss per game.

This will be another uphill battle for the Washington State offense. The overall talent level of ASU's defense is very similar to that of Cal's. Halliday has been taking reps with the first team this week, and it is possible that he can provide a spark with his ability to throw the ball down the field. However, that may not be enough against an ASU squad that does very well against the pass.

The Sun Devils are in trouble if...they are very uncomfortable with cold hands and feet and turn the ball over frequently. They are unprepared for Halliday's stronger throwing arm, and Marquess Wilson gets downfield for some big plays. Additionally, Rickey Galvin has his best game as a Coug, rushing for over 100 yards.

Obviously, it is going to take a lot of breaks going WSU's way for them to come out on top in this one. WSU is back to being one of the 20 worst teams in FBS according to S&P, and ASU is at #26. The spread has ASU by 11.5, but F+/- (a combination of Football Outsiders' FEI and S&P rankings) has ASU by 19.6. The Cougs need to win the last three to keep bowl hopes alive, and the toughest test will be this Saturday.

Thanks to, Football Outsiders, and Football Study Hall for all the wonderful and depressing numbers.