The Washington State Cougars walked into Tempe as 16-point underdogs and walked out with a 34-21 win over the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday, moving one step closer to bowl eligibility and remaining just a game off the pace in the Pac-12 North.
The Cougars (5-4 overall, 4-2 in the Pac-12) took a big 28-7 first half lead that was powered by an exceptional performance by the defense: WSU took the ball away four times in the first two quarters to go along with a 4th down stop and a missed field goal.
The only blemish of the opening two quarters was a quick TD drive given up right before halftime. The Cougars played some fairly soft defense on the drive — the kind of TD drive that served as a harbinger to a collapse in previous games. It should also be noted that ASU (5-3, 3-2) actually picked up 243 yards in the first half, so it wasn’t crazy to think the Sun Devils could be poised for a comeback.
It never materialized: The drive turned out to be just a minor blip as WSU dominated the second half in more conventional fashion, holding ASU to just 57 yards and 3.8 yards per play over the final two quarters before the Sun Devils scored a garbage time TD with less than 30 seconds to go.
Of course, all the great defense wouldn’t have mattered if the offense hadn’t taken advantage, and the Cougars definitely did, finding the end zone four times, and in a variety of ways, ranging from a 1-yard speed option keeper by Jayden de Laura to a 28-yard dime from de Laura to Travell Harris to a Deon McIntosh 1-yard sledgehammer to a 45-yard catch-and-run by Calvin Jackson Jr.
The second half was largely devoid of fireworks, but that worked out just fine for the Cougars. As it became clear that ASU wasn’t going to be able to do much against the WSU defense, the Cougs played it safe to protect their lead and see it out to the finish line, running the ball effectively down the stretch.
The Cougars finally get a well-deserved break in the schedule next weekend with their lone bye of the season. A trip to Eugene to face the Oregon Ducks — potentially with first place on the line — comes the following week.
Seeing it through: It’s starting to feel like forever ago that this team couldn’t figure out how to close out a game. Not only did they turn another halftime lead into a win, it was never even in doubt — a truly remarkable turnaround for this team.
Unreal defense: If you listen to our podcast, you know that I’ve sort of poo-pooed the defense’s ability to take the ball away with any kind of consistency. That seemed to be reinforced last week by the lack of turnovers by BYU. Hooooo boy did that get turned on its head today — WSU secured a whopping five turnovers, each of them deserved. But it wouldn’t do this defensive performance justice to merely focus on that; while the takeaways powered them in the first half, the Cougars just choked out the Sun Devils in the second half with big boy defense. Incredible performance.
The play calling comes around: The offense started to click in the second half of last week’s game, as WSU scored touchdowns on two of its three drives. When you take into account today’s first half, in which the Cougars scored four TDs in six (non-kneel down) drives, offensive coordinator Brian Smith and the players put together a run of six TDs in nine drives. That’s a lot of production! The second half was far less effective, but it mattered not, as the team was simply trying to protect the lead as it got deeper into the game.
14:11 — The game could hardly start better! On the second play of the game, Justus Rogers makes a tremendous hustle play to strip the ball carrier on a screen, and the fumble is recovered by Amir Mujahid. Alas, the Cougars could only pick up eight yards on four plays, and they gave the ball right back.
12:22 — WELL WELL WELL. ASU fumbles again! First play! Daniel Isom punches the ball out as the receiver is heading to the ground, and Rogers scoops it up for a big return to ASU’s 20!
9:44 — And this time, the Cougs pay it off! Facing 3rd-and-goal from the 2 — following a pass on 1st down that looked like a TD but was just short, then a loss on a QB sneak on 2nd down — WSU lines up in the pistol and goes to the speed option. Jayden de Laura keeps it and splits the defenders to crash into the end zone. WSU 7, ASU 0.
4:16 — What in the actual heck is happening?!?! For the third consecutive drive, the Cougars turn over the Sun Devils, who had converted a 3rd-and-14 and a 4th-and-5 to move deep into WSU territory. This time, it’s a diving interception from Chau Smith-Wade.
1:15 — And they pay it off again! After struggling on their first two drives to move the ball against the Sun Devils, there were no such troubles this time. Pinned back on their 13, they start with an 18-yard run by Deon McIntosh, then follow that up with a 30-yard catch-and-run by Calvin Jackson Jr. Four plays later, de Laura hits Travell Harris in stride for a 28-yard TD, capping an explosive six-play, 87-yard drive. WSU 14, ASU 0.
12:33 — DEFENSE AGAIN! After a kickoff out of bounds set ASU up with good field position, a 29-yard pass from Jayden Daniels to Ricky Pearsall helps the Sun Devils move all the way down to the WSU 16, where they face 4th-and-1. ASU brings in the heavy personnel, but the Cougars get great push, causing DeaMonte Trayanum to try and bounce it outside. WSU strings it out perfectly, and he’s eventually run out of bounds for a 2-yard loss.
11:44 — The offense makes its first big mistake of the game, as de Laura and Max Borghi botch a shovel pass and it’s intercepted deep in their own territory. Maybe this will be the thing that finally gets ASU going.
10:53 — NOOOOOOPE. The defense forces a 3-and-out after the Sun Devils pick up just three yards. The 27-yard field goal attempt is good ... but wait! False start! Given another shot at it from 32 yards, Cristian Zendejas pushes it right of the upright, and the Cougars escape.
5:09 — The offense gets back to business! A 17-yard pass to Harris moves the ball to midfield, then a 30-yard completion to Jackson Jr. sets the Cougs up with 1st-and-goal at the ASU 6. A holding penalty by WSU on 3rd-and-goal gave WSU a new set of downs, and three consecutive carries by McIntosh eventually got the ball into the end zone. WSU 21, ASU.
2:37 — OK, this is getting ridiculous. Facing 3rd-and-17 from its own 35 — after correctly called holding penalty wiped a 55-yard TD run from Daniels off the board — a screen pass resulted in another fumble, and another fumble recovery for the Cougars! Plenty of time left to get another score with the ball at midfield.
1:50 — LOL. Didn’t even need a minute — facing 3rd-and-6, an ASU defender bites on a tough route combo and pump fake as Jackson Jr. takes his route vertical, and de Laura flips it into Jackson Jr.’s hands. Calvin does the rest, taking it 45 yards to the house. WSU 28, ASU 0.
0:23 — Welllllll ... now we have just a little bit of life for the Sun Devils, who need just 1:19 to drive 78 yards for their first touchdown of the day. With WSU willingly giving up short plays underneath, it was a little too easy, as ASU needed to convert just one 3rd down on the drive. WSU 28, ASU 7.
2:16 — In a quarter that has a lot less action than the preceding two — something that is just fine by WSU, maintaining its three-TD lead — the Cougars get back on the turnover train when Jaylen Watson picks up an interception on a desperation through by Daniels, who was fleeing rushers.
14:54 — It wasn’t another touchdown, but the Cougs do pick up points, as Dean Janikowski boots a 40-yard field goal. Early in the fourth, a 24-point lead feels real, real nice. WSU 31, ASU 7.
6:50 — More points! And time off the clock! The Cougars cover just 42 yards, but they take 11 plays to do it, and most importantly take 6:23 off the clock before another Janikowski field goal. WSU 34, ASU 7.
4:54 — Starting with superlative field position after a great kickoff return, ASU finally answers back with a TD. Too little, too late. WSU 34, ASU 14.
1:37 — Something finally goes wrong this half, as Janikowski misses a field goal.
Did You See That?!?
One Stat To Tell The Tale
5 — The number of takeaways for WSU’s defense today. Could there be any other?