After struggling mightily as a backup and part-time starter his first three years—combining for 15 interceptions to only seven touchdowns and a completion rating under 50%--Cougar quarterback Marshall Lobbestael emerged from anonymity to serves as a more-than-capable replacement when starter Jeff Tuel suffered an early-season injury.
In all, Lobbestael has completed 60.1% of his passes for 2,231 yards with 16 scores and seven picks, igniting one of the surprisingly effective pass offenses in the Pac-12. In fact, through the early stages of the 2011 season, Washington State boasted one of the nation's elite scoring offenses—though that mark has cooled as noticeably as the Pullman temperatures.
With Tuel out due to injury, redshirt freshman Connor Halliday is positioned as Lobbestael's primary backup.
WSU's offense is very much more effective through the air than on the ground, with the run game essentially splitting duties between Rickey Galvin (79 carries, 479 yards) and Carl Winston (96 carries, 368 yards). Altogether, the Cougars manage only an average of 115.2 rushing yards per game, a statistic that could be a key element Saturday amid what expects to be tumultuous weather.
Undoubtedly, the star of the Washington State squad in any capacity is receiver Marquess Wilson, who likely will surpass the 1,000-yard mark on the season versus the Sun Devils as he brings 974 yards on 59 receptions into the game.
Though Wilson is the clear-cut top target, other viable receivers have been involved including Isiah Barton (42 catches, 483 yards) and Jared Karstetter (39 catches, 444 yards). Bobby Ratliff (21 catches, 213 yards) and Kristoff Williams (seven catches, 113 yards) are among the top reserves at wide receiver.
Washington State's offensive line has been a clear soft spot among an otherwise respectable offense, as the run game has not been highly effective and the Cougars stand among the league's worst in sacks allowed.
David Gonzales starts at left tackle, with John Fullington beside him at left guard and Matt Goetz at center. B.J. Guerra, the most accomplished of the linemen, starts at right guard with Dan Spitz, a converted defensive lineman, at right tackle.
Gonzales, Fullington and Guerra have started every game this season, but a total of five linemen have combined for the starting roles at center and right tackle.
Washington State Offense in a Nutshell
There's no doubt that Washington State is most comfortable and most potent when the Cougars are able to air it out offensively. However, due to the weather conditions Saturday, the run game may be a necessity.
If Lobbestael has time in the pocket and the conditions aren't too threatening to the pass game, WSU is fully capable of keeping the Sun Devil secondary on its heels. However, due to the lukewarm run game and weakness against pass pressure, there are certain holes ASU can plug when on defense.
A fun fact: ASU ranks seventh in the Pac-12 in rushing offense and is 3-0 against teams it has played that are ranked below the Sun Devils in that category (Utah, Oregon State, Colorado). ASU's next two opponents, Washington State and Arizona, are ninth and 10th, respectively.
Defensively, Washington State doesn't feature a strength as the offense does in its pass game as the Cougars rank eighth or lower in the Pac-12 in virtually every major statistical category.
If Saturday's game becomes a ground battle, WSU allows 166.4 yards on average in the run game, a number that is very attractive to Cameron Marshall and the Sun Devil offensive line, both playing their best football of the season.
Additionally, Washington State is not much of a threat in quarterback pressure, posting only 13 total sacks in nine games on the year—10th in the conference.
In terms of personnel, third-year standout Travis Long (32 tackles, team-high 2.5 sacks) is the line's star as the starting left end, with Lenard Williams (13 tackles) opposite him on the right side. Jordan Pu'u Robinson (eight tackles) and Adam Coerper (nine tackles) are the two respective fill-ins.
Washington State features a pair of solid linebackers in WILL Alex Hoffman-Ellis (team-high 66 tackles) and MIKE C.J. Mizell (50 tackles), with SAM Sekope Kaufusi (38 tackles) rounding out the starting trio. SAM Cyrus Coen (nine tackles), MIKE Mike Ledgerwood (13 tackles) and WILL Chester Su'a (seven tackles) are listed as the top reserves.
In the secondary—which ranks eighth in the Pac-12 in pass defense and 10th in pass efficiency defense—Washington States a pair of potential all-conference candidates despite the poor ranking in cornerback Damante Horton (27 tackles, team-high four interceptions) and strong safety Deone Bucannon (55 tackles, three interceptions).
Nolan Washington (15 tackles) joins Horton in the starting lineup at cornerback with Tracy Clark (five tackles) and Daniel Simmons (21 tackles) as reserves, while free safety Tyree Toomer (43 tackles) pairs with Bucannon on the first-team. Casey Locker (31 tackles), Jake's younger cousin, and Anthony Carpenter (12 tackles) are the team's backup safeties.
Washington State Defense in a Nutshell
In all objectivity, there is not much about the Washington State defense that is particularly terrifying—there are commendable individual players at linebacker and defensive back especially, but it does not collaborate toward a stellar team effort.
Through the Cougars' current five-game losing streak, WSU has allowed 37.8 points per game. Washington State may need some luck or advantageous weather difficulties to slow down ASU's offense, because the pieces don't seem to be in place for the Cougars to halt the Sun Devil run and pass games without a little environmental intervention.
Special Teams Preview
Washington State's kicking game is led by Andrew Furney, a candidate for the Lou Groza Award, who has connected on 11-of-13 field goals, while Dan Wagner handles punting duties, averaging 41.0 yards on 35 punts.
On returns, Isiah Barton has been solid at kickoff returner with a 25.8-yard average on 33 returns, but WSU has gotten next to nothing on punt returns, with Leon Brooks only averaging 4.5 yards on 10 runs.
Though the record isn't drastically different, this is a much-improved Cougar team from recent years. WSU started the season with an emphatic offensive bang, but has resorted to old ways during its current five-game skid and is on the doorstep of its eighth consecutive season without a bowl appearance.
With that urgency in mind, Washington State is in the position of required perfection in the season's final three games to maintain bowl hopes—a concern that can empower or impair the team this week.
In addition to the obvious urgency, Washington State has been a team that has been able to "hang around" with teams such as Oregon and Stanford, only to be ultimately left in the dust. With a powerful passing attack, the Cougars have the ability to make up ground quickly, and when combined with their need to win to maintain bowl survival and ASU's palpable urgency after a depressing loss to UCLA, Washington State holds high hopes to play spoiler Saturday.
History plays to ASU's advantage, however—the Sun Devils own a seven-game win streak over the Cougars, the longest streak for ASU against any team it will play this regular season—but the last three wins in Pullman have been by a total of 19 points, including three-point wins in both 2005 and '07.
Ultimately, Sun Devil fans hope that ASU can bring unparalleled focus to the Palouse and avoid any hangover from the UCLA loss.
Key to a Sun Devil Victory
Cure the Hangover
As painful as it was, ASU—especially kicker Alex Garoutte—needs to leave the UCLA game in Pasadena. If any ill effects of a "hangover" emerge against WSU, the Cougar offense can make the Sun Devils pay.
Ground and Pound
The weather likely will open the door for the game to be won or lost on the ground, and statistically ASU has a marked advantage with Cameron Marshall leading the way. Even if Pullman brings bright skies, the Sun Devils need to deal the Cougars a heavy dose of Marshall.
Lobbestael and his weapons at receiver have the talent to go over the top of ASU if time and space are provided, making it imperative that ASU takes advantage of Washington State's subpar offensive line and make life challenging for the Cougs' triggerman.