The Washington State Cougars head to Tempe to face the No. 18 Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday with a new defensive coordinator and two weeks to think about how they have started 0-2 in conference play. Arizona State is coming off a big road win—much like it was the last time it played at home.
That last home game was a 34-31 loss to Colorado. The Buffaloes feature a pretty dang good offense and pretty bad defense. Sound familiar? ASU head coach Herm Edwards and his defense-first, field position rules all approach will be put to a similar test against the Cougs.
It’s still weird to think about “Herm Edwards: 2019 ASU football coach”, even after we had “Herm Edwards: 2018 ASU football coach.” If you are like me, you laughed it off and kind of assumed it would be a disaster. It hasn’t been so far, and ASU has even picked up a couple of the Pac-12’s marquee non-conference wins over Michigan State.
Thanks to a 10-7 barnburner of a win over the Spartans, and last week’s upset-but-probably-not-really-an-upset of Cal, the Sun Devils find themselves at 4-1 and technically one of the Pac-12’s last remaining playoff hopes.
Are they really that good? Probably not. Keeping scores low and close through clock control and punting means randomness will play a role. Sometimes that works out great as an underdog. Sometimes it doesn’t as a favorite. The Sun Devils are (just barely) favored against the Cougs.
Let’s look at what matters for ASU against WSU, starting with the Sun Devil offense.
When ASU has the ball..
Arizona State’s offense has featured either running back Eno Benjamin or quarterback Jayden Daniels rushing the ball on 141 of 327 total plays. Overall, the Sun Devils have run the ball (minus sacks) on 174 plays.
That’s more runs than passes, but still not totally crazy—ASU is 48th in rush rate nationally. However, the Sun Devils are always trying to burn clock
The ASU offense has been on just 59 drives this season. That’s 111th most nationally. The only Pac-12 offense that has been on fewer is Utah with 52. The Sun Devil offense is built to give its defense a rest, and limit the number of times the opposition can score. In a way, Arizona State’s offense is an extension of its defense.
While the overall team record so far is sound, with a couple impressive wins to boot, ASU’s has done less with its limited opportunities than it did in 2018. A lot of that seems to come down to the offensive line.
Nowhere is that more evident that Benjamin’s yards per carry: 3.7, down from 5.5 last season when he carried 300 times on the way to setting a school record with 1,642 rushing yards.
The running struggles have led to ASU’s inability to stay ahead of chains. The Sun Devils rank 97th in success rate—which is measured by getting the necessary yardage on each play to avoid obvious passing downs. When it comes to running the ball specifically, ASU is 114th in success rate.
To summarize: When ASU runs the ball on early downs, it is putting itself in a hole. It gets stuffed on runs (no gain or worse) at the 101st worst rate in the nation.
Does this mean a get-right game is on the horizon for a WSU defense that ranks just 96th in stuff rate, 99th in rushing success rate, and 86th in yards per carry against? Maybe, but the real question is: Will it even matter if WSU can’t defend Arizona State on third and long?
Through WSU’s first two Pac-12 games, and particularly against Utah, it hasn’t mattered. The Cougs have been gashed on passing downs—and they’ve faced a lot of them. WSU’s defense ranks 17th in yards to go against on third down. That’s good. What’s not good? The Coug defense is 92nd in success rate on passing downs.
Arizona State’s offense, on the other hand, ranks 26th in passing down success rate. Daniels is averaging 13.1 yards per attempt on 3rd and 4 or greater, with 13 or his 26 passes going for at least 15 yards. The freshman has the ability to dig the Sun Devils out of a hole when he needs to do it.
The Cougs have been good when they know a team is going to run—evidenced by their 25th best success rate against short yardage situational runs. However, Wazzu has been unable to get off the field when passing is the clear option and Daniels is good enough to exploit that.
He’ll primarily be looking to big-play receiver Brandon Aiyuk (who is also a solid punt and kick returner), as well as Kyle Williams, Frank Darby, and Benjamin to convert those long yardage situations—75 percent of receptions have come from those four.
WSU has shuffled its defense around, particularly in the secondary with Skyler Thomas headed back to his natural safety position, Daniel Isom moving to cornerback and Patrick Nunn along with Armani Marsh now manning the nickel. Will these changes have an impact on passing down performance?
If they don’t, WSU could be in for another frustrating day on third and long.
When WSU has the ball...
The Cougs struggled mightily in their first test against a good defense. The bad news? Arizona State’s defense ranks higher in SP+ (13th) than Utah’s (29th). However, WSU still ranks 7th in offensive SP+, so there’s hope that Salt Lake was just a hiccup.
What makes ASU’s defense scary? Start with the 24th-best passing success rate. That’s will be tested by WSU’s offense, which features the fourth-best passing success rate nationally, and third-best success rate overall.
So, in the passing game it comes down to this: Was WSU’s performance against Utah an anomaly, or was it indicative of what we can expect against better defenses? It’s hard to tell given the small sample size so far, but ASU will provide an interesting piece of data.
Against the run, Arizona State is slightly above average in limiting successful runs (46th in rushing success rate) and quite good at limiting big runs (3rd-best in explosive rush rate). However, it is just 99th in stuff rate.
That means ASU isn’t stopping running backs at or behind the line often, but it is preventing them from breaking off successful runs overall. How will that work against a difficult-to-tackle runner like Max Borghi? Might be worth WSU giving it to the running back a few times to find out.
While Arizona State is giving up very little in terms of big plays on runs, it has given up its fair share of big passes with an explosive passing rate that ranks 71st nationally. The Sun Devils haven’t exactly faced a bunch of great passing offenses, either.
Perhaps that is where WSU makes its headway. If it can keep up with the chains and get a few first downs, there are big plays to be had in the passing game. Coug quarterback Anthony Gordon has certainly shown that he has the propensity to look for big plays, and Coug wide receivers have the ability to gash defenses (even if that is hard to remember after the Utah game).
Gordon might feel much more comfortable in Tempe than he did in Salt Lake City. The Sun Devils are 106th in havoc rate and all but one of their sacks have come against offenses ranked greater than 100 in SP+ or FCS (three each against Kent State, Sacramento State, and Cal).
Basically, WSU has shredded defenses except when it played one that is good (Utah). Arizona State has shut down offenses except when it played one that is good (Colorado scored 34 in beating the Sun Devils).
Something should be revealed when the Cougs have the ball, or maybe nothing will be revealed. It’s just one game and college football is weird, after all.
The Bottom Line
One one side, you have a not-so-good WSU defense against a not-so-good ASU offense. On the other side, a very good Coug offense against a very good ASU defense. That means two units are probably about to feel better about themselves and the other two units are about to feel a bit worse.
Again, how you might see WSU’s chances come down to how predictive you feel the Utah game is against the rest of the Cougs schedule. Do we ignore all the points and yards and success from the first four games because of one bad night? Or do we consider it more indicative of the future because of the higher level of competition? The answer is probably somewhere in between.
When the Sun Devils have the ball, you can’t help but watch to see how WSU’s personnel changes play out. Will they make an impact? Or will it be same old 2019 Cougs missing tackles and giving up big plays on third down?
One would think there wouldn’t be so many questions after five games, but WSU had a pretty crazy couple of weeks. Hopefully for the Cougs the bye helped the offense, and the change helped the defense.
SP+ says this will be close, with Arizona State pulling out a 29-28 win. That means it is essentially a toss-up from a numbers perspective, and Vegas seems to think the same thing.
Given the low number of possessions that are likely to occur, even good offense and bad defense will keep this thing in the high 20s and mid-30s. And given that ASU seemingly only plays one possession games against peer competition, one kick or big play or turnover could be the difference.