The trigger man in in Mike Leach's pass-pass-pass offense basically gains a birthright to massive passing statistics and QB Connor Halliday has certainly inherited that honor as he ranks third in the FBS in passing yards (2,798) while leading the division in passing attempts (428), including an FBS record 89 in his last outing against Oregon.
Sun Devil fans surely remember Halliday as the redshirt freshman replacement that torched ASU on a snowy Saturday in 2011 to the tune of nearly 500 passing yards and a stunning upset of the Devils, but his career wavered a bit last season before taking full starting reins this year.
Halliday's gaudy numbers aren't all on the positive side, as his 18 touchdown passes are shaded by his FBS-high 17 interceptions this year.
As it did last year, WSU ranks dead last in college football in team rushing at a scarce 58.4-yard average per game. In all, the Cougars register only about 18 carries per game, with Marcus Mason (47-208-1), Teondray Caldwell (33-169-1) and Jeremiah Laufasa (30-145-6) splitting the duty.
After an excellent true freshman season in 2012, Gabe Marks has enjoyed a standout sophomore season as WSU's clear number one receiving target. Through eight games, Marks has hauled in 59 receptions for 655 yards with five touchdowns—respectively 31 receptions and 279 yards more than the second-leading receiver on the team in the two categories.
In addition to Marks' impressive feats, WSU features a bounty of viable targets as eight total Cougars have hauled in at least 20 passes on the year.
As expected of a Mike Leach offense, running backs are frequently used in the pass game as Marcus Mason ranks third on the squad in receptions (27), with Caldwell (17 catches) and Laufasa (six receptions) have also seen stable time as receiving options.
The left side of the Cougar offensive line includes a pair of sophomores, tackle Gunnar Eklund and guard Joe Dahl. Conversely, the middle and right side of the line includes three seniors in center Elliot Bosch, guard Matt Goetz and tackle John Fullington. Eklund, Dahl and Bosch have started all eight games at their respective positions while Fullington has split time at right guard and right tackle. Goetz enters his fourth game as a projected starter this season.
Offense in a Nutshell
Though WSU ranks sixth nationally in pass offense, the Cougars have a surprisingly mediocre total offense ranking (54th) because of the team's invisible run game.
Offensively, Washington State will go as Halliday goes, which means a combination of success (yardage) and failure (turnovers). If ASU can harass Halliday, knock him down and tip passes, the Devils can leap on early opportunities to pull ahead. However, if Halliday is granted ample time to throw, the Sun Devil secondary has been up-and-down this season and might expose holes for the Cougars to attack.
Washington State's defensive front consists of three down linemen, featuring Kalafitoni Pole (14 tackles, 1.0 sack) at tackle, Ioane Gauta (30 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) at nose tackle and Xavier Cooper (29 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks) at end. The trio has played well, specifically Gauta and Cooper, who figure to vie for all-conference honors.
Destiny Vaeao (11 tackles) occupies the team's BUCK linebacker spot, a role not too dissimilar to ASU's Devilbacker role. At the three traditional linebacker spots, Cyrus Coen (49 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks) starts at SAM, Darryl Monroe (49 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks) at MIKE and Justin Sagote (45 tackles) at WILL.
Though WSU has one of the poorer pass defenses in the country, the Cougars have solid individual talent in the secondary highlighted by team leader Deone Bucannon at strong safety, who stands tied for the Pac-12 lead in tackles (73) while adding four interceptions, 3.5 TFLs and three forced fumbles. Damante Horton (31 tackles, four interceptions) and true freshman Daquawn Brown (45 tackles, two interceptions) have put up good individual numbers, while Taylor Taliulu (44 tackles) starts at free safety.
BUCK Kache Palacio (29 tackles), WILL Tana Pritchard (27 tackles), MIKE Jared Byers (21 tackles), CB Nolan Washington (20 tackles) and CB Anthony Carpenter (10 tackles) are among the team's top reserves on defense.
Defense in a Nutshell
Statistically, WSU has few areas of defensive strength as the Cougars rank 70th in rush defense (171.6 ypg), 82nd in scoring defense (29.9 ppg.), 95th in total defense (440.1 ypg.) and 106th in pass defense (268.5 ypg.).
ASU QB Taylor Kelly should have time and options from which to choose and the Devils have the statistical edge in terms of duplicating the sensational team rushing effort ASU submitted against Washington. Much like high-powered quarterbacks such as Marcus Mariota, Sean Mannion and Jared Goff, the nationally prominent Kelly should be able to post major numbers against the Cougars.
WSU likely will have to hope for turnover opportunities so stall the Sun Devil offense as the numbers support the chance of ASU surpassing 500 yards of total offense—perhaps even closer to the 600-yard mark.
Special Teams Preview
Veteran kicker Andrew Furney has been expectedly reliable for WSU this season, hitting 10-of-12 field goal attempts and all 31 PAT's he has tried. Furney boasts a strong and accurate leg as he has nailed 6-of-7 field goals from 40 yards and beyond this year. His two misses are from 39 and 45 yards.
Mike Bowlin averages 39.6 yards on punts and also handles kickoffs for the Cougars.
Rickey Galvin is WSU's primary kick returner, averaging 22.9 yards in that role, while Leon Brooks has been solid on punt returns with a 10.2-yard average.
Keys to a Sun Devil Victory
Tally the Turnovers
The nation's leader in pass attempts (428), Halliday is naturally in a position to throw more interceptions than virtually all other college quarterbacks but his nation-worst 17 picks aren't predicated simply on his quantity of throws.
Aside from the 19 total interceptions (two additional thrown by backup Austin Apodaca), Washington State has also coughed up six fumbles to total 25 turnovers in eight games, ranking the Cougars among the nation's bottom-20 teams in turnover margin. By comparison, ASU ranks 20th in the country, having forced 16 turnovers while surrendering only 10.
Washington State is unlikely to run the ball with any sort of consistency and the Cougars operate quickly enough to avoid a bounty of sacks, but, as the averages tell, Halliday is good for at least two interceptions per game and ASU enters this contest collectively ranked 22nd nationally in aerial takeaways.
ASU's offensive figures to have the potency and matchup advantages to hold its own, while the Cougar offense is certainly no slouch in its own right, so if the Sun Devils can hold WSU to its per-game turnover average or force an amount to exceed the Cougars' norm, ASU will find itself in scoring position to create a sizable gap in Pullman.
Red Zone Touchdowns
Washington State has the capability to eat up yards by the mouthful and score points in chunks as well, making it integral that ASU scores six—not three—when inside the 25-yard line. Against Washington, ASU was an incredible 10-for-10 in red zone scoring opportunities, but the Devils too frequently settled for field goal attempts, especially inside the 10-yard line.
ASU should have the ability to move the ball across the field against the Cougars and it would do wonders to help silence the hometown Halloween crowd for ASU to fully capitalize on scoring opportunities that are presented.
This road trip for ASU has been pinpointed as one with hidden importance and that notion remains true as game day approaches.
Thursday is huge for both teams as ASU intends to remain in the Pac-12 South driver's seat while WSU yearns for the shot at its first postseason appearance in a decade. Factor in ASU's surprising defeat in Pullman during its last visit, a national television audience and add the cherry-on-top of the mystical potential for some Halloween tricks and treats and the end result is a high magnitude for both squads.
ASU's bye week may very well prove to be perfectly timed as it enables the Sun Devils to maintain momentum from a huge win over Washington but also return to a leveled emotional state and preserve tactical focus for Washington State.
It remains to be seen what level of urgency Washington State shows in this game—will the dangling carrot of postseason eligibility in the not-too-distant future be a factor for good or bad?
In all, WSU will get its yards and it will get its points, but it likely will sacrifice its share of turnovers. The Cougar defense figures not to be enough to post much resistance against ASU's offensive attack and if the Sun Devils can take its dominant style of play in Tempe on the road to the Palouse, ASU should be able to take a solid margin of victory in a probable high-scoring game.
ASU Co-Defensive Coordinator Chris Ball coached at WSU from 2007-11
ASU DB Jordan Simone was on the WSU roster as a true freshman in 2011. His brother, Gino, played for the Cougars from 2009-12.
WSU OL Denzell Dotson is an Arizona native and attended Cactus High School in Glendale.