This Saturday, Washington State (5-3) opens its gates to the friendly confines of Martin Stadium for both dads of current undergraduates and an Arizona State (4-4) squad that suffered a gut-wrenching triple overtime loss to Oregon last week. The Sun Devils trip north with the hope of snaring one of the two more wins required to reach bowl contention, which is a far cry from their lofty pre-season expectations, many of which had them contending for the South.
ASU has been very inconsistent so far this season, ranging from not beating their weaker non-conference foes by enough points to be flattering to getting run off the field by USC, to dominating UCLA. However, the Sun Devils are a dangerous team that presents a very unique challenge for the Cougars on Dad's Weekend.
Arizona State blitzes more than any team in the country: by some estimates they'll bring an extra rusher on over 50 pct of snaps. You hear "feast or famine" used to describe the aggressive Sun Devil defense on broadcasts, and for good reason: they've given up 48 plays over 20 yards this season -- the 21st most in FBS -- and a conference high 10 plays over 40 yards. That's the famine.
The feast happens in the backfield. Sparky is fourth in the nation in sacks (seventh in adjusted sack rate) and third in the nation in tackles for a loss. The ASU LB havoc rate is ranked first nationally at 10.1 pct. The Sun Devils bring heat and are very good at landing it.
One of Arizona State's most used packages this season facing a WSU formation comes against trips, a 3x1 set. It's simple enough: one backer shows everything is normal pre-snap, then rolls up to the line as the QB starts his cadence. He splits the tackle with his rush end while the other backer zone drops with eyes on WR No.3 (third from the sideline), walling any crossing route.
The corner is manned up on the backside to prevent any hot route slants, and the three defenders to the trips side play what looks like -- and we'll call it this for simplicity's sake -- "combo" coverage (lingo varies everywhere; "blue" is also popular). Essentially it's a pattern-matching concept -- think man coverage in basketball where you switch on a pick-n-roll. The inside guy, either a nickel or outside backer, has the WR No. 2 on anything vertical past around seven yards or on any in cut. If he breaks out before that he gets passed off to the corner and the safety rolls to WR No. 1.
Wazzu has a solid handful of route concepts that match strengths against the weaknesses of this coverage against trips.
ASU gave a far more aggressive look against passing formations in standard down and distance scenarios. They bring the weakside safety down to the line at the same time as the backer before the snap. Depending on WR splits, that backside corner also blitzed and the safety would drop from the line to pick up the WR.
Even in the middle of the field, the Sun Devils would walk up into what looks like a goal line formation on short yardage downs.
Two backers would line up over guards at the line of scrimmage and feint a rush for a few steps before dropping back into a middle zone to guard against shallow crossing routes.
Those are three of the more common packages they've shown in the past couple games. Their second leader in sacks is a defensive back -- Jordan Simone -- so be ready to see pressure come from everywhere. How much is a little bit of a mystery.
Will ASU back off and try to play coverage or bank on hitting home with added pressure before WSU quarterback Luke Falk finds one of the many potent Cougar WRs?
What has me concerned about Arizona State
Bercovici. ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici had to wait until his senior year to take the reigns of the Sun Devil offense. He's second in the conference in passing attempts, averaging around 40 per game and has 326 on the season (Falk has completed 317 passes). But it's his running ability that is a little worrisome; WSU gave up 124, 105, and 112 yards to quarterbacks running the ball in the past three games. Bercovici doesn't have stellar rushing stats thanks to sack yardage, but he regularly gets a little over five designed carries per game and is a fairly competent runner.
Zone read is built into the ASU offense. The Sun Devils run it (and play action) off Power like Cal, and more usually off an outside zone with Bercovici on the option to the inside or cut-back. Bercovici hasn't exactly lit the world on fire with his arm yet this season, but he's easily capable of that too if they get in rhythm.
Hesitating. Falk has had a tendency to hang in the pocket in the face of pressure just a beat too long, leading to seven fumbles (all recovered by WSU in a miraculous stretch of good fortune) and some panicky scrambles. He'll need to be on quick tempo to get the ball out against ASU. Some of the pressures will be very similar to what Washington State saw from OSU, and as long as Falk sets that internal clock to ding a bit quicker like he did against the Beavers, Coug WRs will have some opportunities to makes plays against this secondary.
#SpecialForces. Watching kick-offs and punts will continue to be an angst-filled endeavor. ASU has a real quality return man.
Doug Haller excellent man on the ASU/Pac-12 beat for The Republic and azcentral.com was kind enough to lend his thoughts
What are you most confident in about the Arizona State Sun Devils?
At this point, it's hard to say. They've been up and down all season. The defense has been good against the rush, which won't do it much good against Washington State. But the Sun Devils also have done a nice job of pressuring. They rank in the top five of sacks and tackles for loss per game, and that brings game-changing opportunities. Special teams, at times, also have been a plus, particularly kick returner Tim White. Offensively, they run the ball well. Sophomores Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage are a strong 1-2 punch out of the backfield.
What has me confident about Wazzu
WR Trio. Gabe Marks, River Cracraft, and Dom Williams are all on the Biletnikof watch-list. Wazzu is the only program in college football to have three players on that list. All three of them average more yardage per game than ASU's leading receiver, Devin Lucien. Williams and Marks should see more man coverage this game than they have in a while and, with vacating linebackers, Cracraft could have himself a monster game.
Falk and Earth, Wind, and Fire. This will be the most crucial run-check game for WSU yet. As aggressive as ASU is with blitzing, if Falk can spot something before the snap and get them in the right rush play, the running backs could bust a few on the ground. In general, you want to run away from pressure and throw right at it. You don't only beat a blitz with a quick pass: sometimes a better option might be letting one of the RB troika try outrunning what ASU has left on their side of the ball after the snap.
Distractions. This isn't a huge advantage or anything, but it's definitely something that has pestered ASU head coach Todd Graham all week. Stealing, or "picking," signs from an opposing sideline isn't illegal -- provided they aren't using recording equipment to do it -- or really even a big deal. It's part of the game. Everyone tries to, and the fact ASU does too isn't (or shouldn't be) news to anybody.
Coach Leach made Graham deal with a lot of nonsense this week with a simple, off-handed suggestion during the conference call that the PAC-12 should consider looking into the situation to make sure nothing illegal is happening. Not an accusation, but just a comment that stirred up a media mess for ASU to deal with.
(Not) stretching the field. WSU is the only team in the conference that hasn't given up a passing play over 50 yards. They've allowed the second fewest passing plays over 20 yards (16) and their passing defense IsoPPP is ranked 16th nationally. The Cougs will make teams earn their passing yardage.
Welcome to Pullman, desert school.
It's turning into a Winter Wonderland at Martin Stadium! #GoCougs pic.twitter.com/qoPsm0XmaM— Cougar Athletic Fund (@CougarAthFund) November 5, 2015
Seated tickets are sold out. Standing room only tickets are sold out. It's Dad's Weekend.
This will be the most hostile crowd ASU has played in front of, and the closer it gets to looking like WSU will get that sixth win, the more insane that madhouse will get.
So, Mr. Haller...
What about Wazzu should concern ASU?
Any team that finds a way to pick up ASU's blitzing poses a problem for the Sun Devils. ASU does well when it hurries the quarterback. But when opponents protect, it leaves the Sun Devils vulnerable on the back end. Big plays were a problem last year for coach Todd Graham. We're starting to see that happen again this year.
How I think this game will play out
Arizona State will need to their blitzes to cause problems or it could be a long day. The Sun Devils rank 101st nationally in passing yardage allowed per game, 105th in passing TDs allowed per game, and 114th in yards per pass completion. If Falk is kept upright, that secondary is entirely beatable.
This should be another close, high scoring game. WSU will be able to do their thing on offense most of the time, but ASU can get key stops to keep the Cougs from pulling away. The Coug D handles power and outside zone really well, which is a lot of what ASU likes to do, I would expect them to work read-option with Bercovici early on in the game.
Final score: WSU 48 - 41 ASU
I think it all comes down to how much ASU can impact Luke Falk. If the Sun Devils can get to him, force him into some quick throws, maybe get a couple turnovers, they should have a good chance to win. If not, they'll lose their third in a row.
Big thanks to Doug for answering our questions this week. You can follow him on twitter here, and find all of his great coverage here. Below are a couple choice articles you may be interested in.
Saturday is big for ASU's Jordan Simone even if he won't admit it
"You know, it's one of those things with Jordan,'' Gino Simone said. "He was the most wear-his-heart-on-his-sleeve type of guy when he was younger, but he's kind of matured a little bit and can kind of keep those emotions in check. But for him to say this game isn't going to mean a little more than maybe some of the others, I would think that might be a little bit of an understatement. I know he's got a big chip on his shoulder about things and is ready to kind of say to WSU, 'This is what you missed out on.' "
ASU-WSU Scouting report and prediction
ASU 44, Washington State 38