With kickoff for WSU and Arizona State just hours away, let’s get a quick look at the Sun Devils from a guy who knows them a lot better than we do: House of Sparky managing editor Connor Pelton!
CougCenter: WSU and Arizona State have nearly identical records, yet both Las Vegas and advanced metrics have pegged the Sun Devils as a significantly weaker team. How do you see it? Is the record a little bit of a mirage, or are the metrics missing something?
I’m a big fan of the “you are who your record says you are” view, but I will say Arizona State is one of the weaker 5-2 teams in the country. Its four wins against FBS opponents are a mediocre 12-13, and those victories came by an average of 7.5 points. The Sun Devils have hovered around the bottom of the national rankings as far as pass defense goes, and the quarterback situation is murky at best due to injuries to the top three signal callers on the depth chart. So, credit the team for finding a way to get to 5-2 at this point, but I can definitely see why most metrics think Arizona State is overrated.
CougCenter: It seems like Todd Graham really values a tough, physical rushing attack, and yet that aspect of the offense has really struggled in recent weeks. Why is that, and how much hope do the Sun Devils have of moving the ball on the ground against WSU, which is one of the better run defenses in the conference?
I wouldn’t anticipate the ground game having much more success against a defense like Washington State’s. With Manny Wilkins still struggling to get around on that left leg, his mobility is severely limited. The struggles that running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard have encountered in recent weeks can be placed on increased competition and the perils of a young offensive line. The line has struggled for most of the year, but those problems have been magnified against good defenses like USC and Colorado.
CougCenter: Just how much of a problem for the offense is Manny Wilkins’ injury?
It’s huge, if only because it takes away the threat of Wilkins’ legs. He’s just not where he needs to be as far as pure pocket passing goes if Arizona State wants to win games in shootout-fashion like it was earlier in the season. The sophomore is able to have success with quick slant and out routes, but intermediate-to-deep balls continue to be a struggle.
That’s not entirely his fault, either. The receiving corps is not especially deep and they have yet to develop the kind of on-field chemistry and cohesiveness you’d like to see. There is just not a wideout on this roster that can bail out Wilkins like you may have seen in years past with Devin Lucien and Jaelen Strong.
CougCenter: After a slow start in last year’s game, Luke Falk proceeded to carve up the ASU defense. Would you expect the Sun Devils to employ a different strategy this time around, or just try and do what they do better?
The strategy will be the same as always: steal as many signs as possible. But if this year’s results have been any indication, they will need to do a much better job of it.
In all seriousness, this team rarely changes much on the defensive side of the ball. Expect the same blitz-heavy attack as always.
CougCenter: On a scale of “kinda hovering in the doorway” to “making a ham and swiss panini,” just how far is Mike Leach in Graham’s kitchen with all this sign stealing talk?
Hovering in the doorway. It’s not easy to get in his kitchen, and he already admitted that Arizona State (legally) steals signs when this issue arose last season. Graham has been accused of everything from signal stealing to having his players fake injuries throughout his career, and I’ve yet to see it bother him.
And my answers to his questions ...
1. Washington State has gone from a team that lost its season opener against an FCS team (granted, it was against a good Eastern Washington team) to one of the hottest teams in the Pac-12. Have the Cougars surpassed your preseason expectations?
I’d say they’re they’re probably right at the median preseason expectation at this point. Nobody expected them to lose to an FCS team (AGAIN), so there are some who surely will say they are below expectations simply because of that. But then there are those -- like myself -- who didn’t expect them to make it through this Oregon-Stanford-UCLA stretch unscathed. So, on balance, sitting at 3-0 atop the Pac-12 North with Washington probably evens it out. They’re currently playing like the team we all expected coming into the season.
2. What's the biggest difference between this Washington State team and the one we saw last year up in Pullman?
Probably the fact that they can run the ball a lot more effectively. The Air Raid is always going to be pass happy, but it’s at its most effective when it can take advantage of favorable defensive fronts by gashing the opponent on the ground. The Cougs have proven this year that they can do that if a defense isn’t respecting the run game. WSU didn’t run it real effectively against UCLA, but a lot of that had to do with the Bruins, who feature a future NFL nose tackle and often made sure there were six guys in the box to deter the Cougs from running. I’m not sure there are any teams in the Pac-12 outside of UCLA and Washington who can employ that strategy and still stifle the passing game to some degree.
3. Mike Leach's teams have been known for their less-than-stellar defensive units in years past, but after finishing 97th in the country in yards allowed a season ago, the Cougars are up to 54th halfway through the 2016 campaign. What's been the biggest change you have noticed on the defensive side of the football?
A couple of things. First, the defensive line has come alive. That area of the defense was a big question mark coming into the season, and it sure looked after the first couple of games that it was going to be a problem area. They were mediocre against the run and got next-to-no pressure on the quarterback. Now, led by Hercules Mata’afa, they’re disrupting things again. They made life absolutely miserable for Christian McCaffrey and pretty much set up shop in UCLA’s backfield.
Second, Shalom Luani -- a preseason pick by many as an all-conference safety -- has dropped down into WSU’s nickel position, which is more akin to the Arizona Cardinals’ “moneybacker” position pioneered by WSU alum Deone Bucannon. He’s giving the Cougars a tremendous boost in their run defense, but is flexible enough to drop back into coverage and gum things up. It was a bit of an accident that came about when previous starter Parker Henry went down with an injury, but it’s been a boon for the team.
(It also doesn’t hurt that Stanford and UCLA are super awful offensively at the moment.)
4. Speaking of Leach, what are your thoughts on Arizona State's alleged sign stealing? Is this just Leach being Leach?
It’s 100 percent Leach being Leach. I think it’s funny that nobody seems to remember this from last year:
Unlike Oregon, which often tries to attack specific weaknesses in a defense, Leach’s offensive philosophy is predicated on the idea that you can’t defend the whole field even if you know what’s coming. So, it really doesn’t matter if you’ve figured out the signals, and if the opponent wants to expend energy on that, more power to them.
However, I’m really not sure why it is that he’s going after Graham specifically on this. He seems to have a pretty cordial relationship with the other coaches in the conference. Maybe it’s because he really believes ASU is doing things they shouldn’t -- coaches talk, and even if it’s not affecting him, he could be sympathetic to his colleagues -- but if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s simply because Graham is so self-serious that his goat seems to be an easy one to get.
5. We know what Luke Falk gives Washington State through the air, but I'm more interested in the three-headed rushing attack that the Cougars can deploy in the ground game. What should we expect to see out of Jamal Morrow, James Williams, and Gerard Wicks, and what makes them different from each other?
You should expect to see something like 30ish carries between them, with the load being distributed fairly equally. Wicks is a bruiser who doesn’t have much in the way of elusiveness, but he’ll get downhill in a hurry and hit someone. Williams, meanwhile, is much more elusive and explosive. He can hit people, for sure, but he’s also a home run threat anytime he touches the ball. Morrow is a nice medium between the two -- a patient runner who is a bit elusive, but also big enough to get physical with a defender. It’s important to remember that all three are receiving weapons out of the backfield, as well -- particularly Morrow, who just has a nice feel for using blockers and picking up extra yards after a catch.