Know Your Foe: Washington State

In its last home game of the 2014 season Arizona State will try and bounce back from last week’s disappointing loss at Oregon State, as they host Washington State. The Cougars, much like the Beavers, have struggled this year yet are plenty dangerous on offense. What can ASU expect come Saturday?’s Managing Editor Emeritus John C. Witter answers your questions on ASU’s next opponent.

Is Washington State’s 3-7, 2-6 Pac-12 record considered a surprise or were there warning signs in the pre-season that pointed to such a possible mark?

Witter: It’s a surprise. WSU AD Bill Moos had pointed to Mime Leach’s third season as when he saw things coming together and the Cougs competing for the Pac-12 North. The schedule had six home games plus one in Seattle and all three non-conference games were certainly winnable.

Some Washington State fans were asking for a QB change when Connor Halliday was healthy. Do you feel that Luke Falk might actually be in upgrade at this position?

Witter: There are some things that Halliday has an edge on, such as arm strength and the ability to go through his reads faster. But Falk has shown a better ability to extend plays with his mobility and his poise and accuracy has been far above what you would expect of a second-year freshman. The offense looked very smooth against Oregon State in Falk’s first collegiate start but it’s too early to make a lot of projections based on the small sample size.

Mike Leach’s offenses have always known to be very light on the run game. Is that something Cougar fans have learned to accept by now or would they still rather see a more developed rushing attack than what they currently have?

Witter: There are certainly fans who would like to see more running, though there are others who recognize the pass plays that are basically runs. The main gripe has been when the defensive look is conducive to the run but the Cougs didn’t check to it. Falk is more apt to check to the run than Halliday, according to what the WSU coaches have said.

Having said that, what in your opinion are the factors that contribute to the big passing numbers the Washington State offense is able to put up this year?

Witter: A good part of it is that the young players are now in their third year under Leach, they’ve become well versed in the Air Raid. The receiving corps is deep, and they’re skilled at finding the open areas. Halliday looked comfortable this season in a way he hadn’t before and Falk hasn’t missed a beat. The o-line has done a nice job for the most part in providing a good pocket for as much as WSU passes the ball.

Even though the running backs are virtually a non-factor in this offense, are there some on the roster that are capable of being a big play threat?

Witter: Actually, running back Jamal Morrow has 1,071 all-purpose yards in 10 games this season. And he’s fourth on the team in receiving with 57 catches. Last year, RB Marcus Mason led the Cougars in all-purpose yards and was second on the team in receiving with 52 grabs. I’m glad you brought this up because it’s an often misunderstood how Leach uses his running backs – he wants his backs to lead the Pac-12 conference in all-purpose yards every year. They’re not there yet but they are on the right path and Morrow and Gerard Wicks, effectively co-starters this season, are only in their first year of playing college football. They’re not top-end speed guys but rather the types that rip off good-sized chunks of yardage, each features surprising power and are good “skaters.”

Do you think that the Cougars defense will hold up versus the Sun Devils offense, and why? Who are some of the standouts on this side of the ball?

Witter: The defense will have their hands full. The secondary in particular has been a problem area and if the Cougar pass rush and defensive front don’t win their battles, it makes it that much tougher on the defensive backs. It doesn’t help that WSU’s best corner, Daquawn Brown, has to sit out the first half due to a targeting foul. That said, WSU got enough heat on OSU’s Sean Mannion last time out to make a difference and on some of the passes completed against the DBs, they were right there in coverage. DL Xavier Cooper has been the most disruptive of the front, LB Jeremiah Allison has really come into his own this season and BUCK Kache Palacio is a pass rushing specialist.

ASU’s defense is obviously known for their aggressive style of play and large number of blitzes. Has that approach often slowed down the pass heavy Cougars in 2014?

Witter: WSU gets the ball away quicker than just about everyone in a good portion of their passing game. But other pass routes do take time to develop, and WSU will need to find a way to give Falk that extra beat in those cases. In some games, the Cougars have blunted the pass rush quite well. But in others, Halliday didn’t have a lot of time. It has really varied from game to game, play to play.

Mike Leach is one the most polarizing coaches in college football. In his 3rd year in Pullman with a record of 12-23, 7-18 Pac-12 how is he perceived these days by the fan base and is he believed to still be the best option for this program long term?

Witter: Wouldn’t agree that he is “polarizing.” The fan base has been disappointed with the results this season. At the same time, most also see how his offense has improved each season and how there’s a good amount of talent he’s brought in with his early recruiting classes, including the current class that’s being assembled. The defense has a lot of good, young talent but the bottom line is that unit must perform better and more consistently on Saturdays. At the end of the day, he like every other coach will be judged on wins and losses. The feeling from this end is that the fan base believes he is the right man for the job.

Even though Washington State is a heavy underdog what are some of the factors that could contribute to an upset this weekend?

Witter: Hitting the mesh routes and the underneath stuff and in turn, putting up some decent yards after the catch. When ASU overloads a blitz to one side, the Cougs need to exploit the middle in the same way Oregon State did in the first half. Defensively, the Cougs need to get enough heat on the QB but they also have to limit the run game. WSU’s special teams don’t have to be stellar, but they do have to at least be serviceable which hasn’t been the case save for the most recent game against OSU. The biggest factor will be whether ASU can get consistent pressure. If so, WSU will face an uphill climb. But if Falk does have time, he can make this game very interesting.

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