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Interactive Graphic: In WSU vs. ASU, somebody’s having a get-right game

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Both teams have an opportunity to fix some problems.

WASHINGTON ST V UTAH Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

The Washington State Cougars head to Tempe with new defensive coordinators and a reshuffled deck on defense. If ever there was a potential soft landing for Darcel McBath and Roc Bellantoni, it’s the Arizona State Sun Devils.

The desert has historically not been kind to the Cougs, but the Sun Devils are working with a new offensive line, a true freshman quarterback and relying on their defense to get the job done. There’s lots of potential for a good defensive performance. However, I’m sure Arizona State is thinking that the WSU defense could be just what the doctor ordered to get their offense rolling before they face the Utah Utes next week. Before we take a deeper look at that match-up, let’s first look at a positive trend from the offense.

The below chart looks at possessions per game by % of possessions that result in a touchdown. When you highlight a team, it adds their previous seasons to the chart to compare.

The thing that made the 2018 version of WSU so awesome when compared to 2017 was how they finished drives with touchdowns. They went from 71st in 2017 to 10th in 2018, and even after the Utah game this season, they rank 9th, scoring a touchdown on 49% of their possessions. The Sun Devils are averaging 10.6 possessions a game (125th nationally) and score touchdowns 22% of the time, good for 103rd.

If your offense isn’t going to be great at scoring points, then it better be great at holding onto the ball. Last season Arizona State was 3rd nationally in turnover rate, only giving the ball away on 7% of possessions, and this season, they’re 21st, turning it over 7.5% of the time. The Cougs have a good opportunity to limit yards and points and they’re going to need to as ASU will likely not give WSU any extra possessions Saturday.

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Arizona State is led on offense by 5-star true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels. He’s usually handing the ball off to Eno Benjamin, who broke a bunch of records for Arizona State last year but is working behind a retooled offensive line in 2019 and hasn’t been putting up as much production this season. ASU has had to go up against stout defenses in Michigan State (6th in SP+) and California (24th in SP+) and got a bit of a breather vs Kent State (117) and Colorado (113).

Our beloved Cougs are rolling with a new look defense after moving Skyler Thomas to strong safety and Daniel Isom back to corner, starting Patrick Nunn at nickel and replacing Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei with Dallas Hobbs as NT1. The last six quarters have been rough and there is not much to be encouraged by in the rankings below. Hopefully the introduction of Hunter Dale as a quality control assistant and the players back in more comfortable positions helps them turn a corner.

Watch party talking points for when Arizona State has the ball:

  • Eno Benjamin 5.47 yards per carry in 2018, 3.7 in 2019
  • ASU is 25th in Yards Per Attempt. Haven’t watched much of them, but I assume they try to hit big passes off play action
  • ASU is 123rd in success rate on First Down; Nunn and Thomas can step up to get the Sun Devils in passing downs on 2nd and 3rd that hopefully takes away the play action threat
  • The Sun Devils are 28th in 3rd Down Conversion %; expect some scrambles from Daniels or success in short yardage runs that keep drives alive
  • The Cougar defense can come up big with stops in the red zone; they rank 34th in red zone TD%, ASU ranks 62nd.

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If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend taking a listen to the Cougtalk podcast from this week. Connor Halliday was a guest and provided a ton of great insight. He called out how important it is to feed your best player when the offense is sputtering. For him that was Vince Mayle, for the 2019 Cougs, Halliday called out Max Borghi. ASU is pretty solid against the run, especially in not giving up explosive runs. If they drop 8, Anthony Gordon is going to need to do a better job of finding Borghi quick to get him one on one in space to stay ahead of the chains.

Watch party talking points for when the Cougs have the ball:

  • ASU has faced a good offense in Colorado (8th in SP+), an OK offense in Michigan State (56th) and two bad ones in Cal (101) and Kent State (107)
  • Sun Devils are 82nd in 3rd Down Conversion %. Feed Dez Patmon with screens or quick passes and put Borghi in a position to convert 3rd downs
  • WSU ranks 14th in Explosive Plays, ASU hasn’t faced on offense that ranks higher than 45th (Michigan State) in that category
  • Colorado is 25th in converting trips inside opponents 40 into touchdowns, WSU is 15th. ASU gave up their highest point total of the season to Colorado

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I probably shouldn’t have optimism about the defense, but I have it. I really like the way Nunn plays and I’m excited that Thomas is at least back at safety, even if it isn’t free safety. The talent level of this team has been raised over the last few seasons and I’m excited to see our best athletes on the field more. I don’t think a blow out either way is on the horizon. Tempe is going to be perfect Air Raiding weather and if the defense can somehow nab a take away or two I like our chances to steal one.