First look: Washington State

A loss at Washington State would move Arizona State below .500 in November for the first time in the Todd Graham era, and the Cougars are playing well in the Pac-12.

After falling in back-to-back contests to Utah and Oregon in its past two games, Arizona State’s consecutive losses mark the program’s first losing streak since the middle of the 2012 season.

The Sun Devils, now 4-4, have fallen on hard times relative to the high expectations generated inside their own program, and enter the month of November with a path to bowl eligiblity that could be challenging.

Prior to the season, November was supposed to be an easier month for ASU, having already checked traditional powers USC, UCLA and Oregon off on the schedule. Instead, the next four weeks figure to test the Sun Devils in the same way they’ll test their opponents, as ASU will battle against four teams that also come into the month hoping to lock up a bowl bid.

Even though the results haven’t gone the way ASU expected this year, head coach Todd Graham said he’s proud of the way his team has fought each of the last two weeks.

“Our guys never give up,” Graham said at his Monday press conference. “They never quit. They play to the end of the whistle. They play to the last whistle. Our guys, this is a great group of seniors, and you know, as a team we haven't gotten it done, and really to be real honest with you, it's been two games, you know, Utah and Oregon, the two conference games.”

Now that ASU on the outside of the Pac-12 title race looking in, Graham is hoping the same fight until the finish mentality his team has demonstrated holds true as the regular season moves on.

The first team the Sun Devils encounter along this late-season stretch is an unlikely challenger in the Washington State Cougars. At 5-3, the Cougars rebounded from a devastating season-opening loss to FCS Portland State and have won five of their past seven games.

The Cougars nearly made it six of seven, but a potential game-winning field goal from redshirt sophomore kicker Erik Powell sailed wide on Saturday night thwarting Washington State’s upset hopes and preventing a state of utter chaos in the Pac-12 North.

“I was very impressed with Washington State against Stanford. Coach (Mike) Leach has done a great job with those guys. They're a very good football team, and we've got to go up there and figure out a way to put it all together.

Despite facing the No. 9 team in the country and a budding national contender, the Cougars were not phased by the Cardinal. A team that has finished in 4th place or worse in the Pac-12 North in each of the last three years under Leach took Stanford to the brink, and probably should have won.

Though Leach is best known for being a father of the “Air Raid” offense, the fourth-year head coach is also considered a fairly aggressive play-caller. That’s in part why Washington State’s loss was somewhat surprising Saturday, given the Cougars actually settled for five first half field goal attempts.

If not for a dismal 2-for-14 performance on third down conversion attempts that forced the Cougars into kicking situations, Washington State could have built an even larger lead that would have required more than a few Kevin Hogan scrambles to keep the Cardinal in the game.

With ASU falling in triple overtime against Oregon and Washington State losing on a failed last second field goal attempt, both programs figure to be eager to return to the win column this Saturday.

“You've got to pick yourself up and go on, and that's what our guys will do,” Graham said. “I mean, our guys have got great character. They're going to play hard, and obviously it's a different match-up with Washington State, but there's still a lot for these guys to play for. These guys have been a part of a pretty special time here, and these seniors are really important, so we've talked a lot about that and talked about, you know, we can control what we can control.”

Under Graham, ASU has dominated Washington State, winning by a margin of at least three touchdowns in all three meetings between the two schools. However, the Cougars have steadily closed the gap since a 46-7 loss at Sun Devil Stadium in 2012, and this year could be a turning point for the Washington State program.

The turnaround for the Cougars starts at the quarterback position, where redshirt sophomore Luke Falk ranks among the most efficient passers in the Pac-12. Falk’s 404.9 passing yards per game, 28 passing touchdowns, and 70.8 completion percentage are all tops in the conference, but those are types of numbers we’ve come to expect from a quarterback in Leach’s offense.

What makes Falk stand out comparatively is his ball security, as his six interceptions mean he’s turned the ball over on fewer than 1.5 percent of his attempts.

Falk has enjoyed a benefit few Leach quarterbacks ever have this season, and that’s the presence of a running game opponents actually have to take time scheming and accounting for.

Though the Cougars still pass the ball on 70 percent of their plays, the Cougars run game is averaging 90.8 yards per game. In the past three seasons under Leach, Washington State’s best mark was 53.4 yards per game in 2013, which shows the Cougars are doing a better job of keeping defenses honest.

Aside from Falk, the focal point of Washington State’s offense is the deep unit at wide receiver. The Cougars boast three of the most productive wide receivers in the Pac-12 in redshirt junior Gabe Marks redshirt senior Dom Williams and junior River Cracraft.

All three players account for at least five catches per game, and the trio all ranks among the top six leading receivers in terms of catches in the Pac-12.

But much like production from the quarterback position, big numbers at wide receiver are a given if Leach is calling the shots. Though it hasn’t translated into victories until this season, Leach’s Air Raid has always commanded respect from opposing coaches because of the prolific yardage totals it produces.

“I think obviously Coach's (Leach) system is a really difficult system,” Graham said. “And they've just got confidence. You know, same offensive line, same quarterback, a lot of the same players, just they're stronger, they’re faster, and they're confident. I think they were 3-9 last year and they're 5-3, and they just lost on the last play of the game or they could have been 6-2. It's just confidence and how hard they're playing. They're playing extremely hard. I was real impressed with them against Stanford.”

The transition from last year’s 3-9 season to this season’s 5-3 mark hasn’t been the result of dramatic offensive improvements, but rather, a stronger defense.

Into the late stages of Saturday’s game, Washington State perplexed a Stanford offense that shredded Pac-12 competition, and ASU redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici said the Cougars’ are capitalizing on an opportunistic style.

“They're very opportunistic,” Bercovici said. “They create turnovers, and unfortunately it was raining but they still got after it. Every time we play up there, the weather could be whatever it is. But they're a good team, and we're excited to go against them.”

The Cougars haven’t held up particularly well against the run this season, but their secondary is second in the Pac-12 in passing defense, giving up an average of 205.4 yards per game.

Some of the Cougars’ success in that category undoubtedly comes from teams taking advantage of running opportunities and striving to control the time of possession by keeping Washington State’s offense off the field. Opponents have passed an average of just 33 times per game against the Cougars, the second lowest rate in the conference behind Oregon State, another team struggling to stop the run.

As both the Sun Devils and the Cougars enter the stretch run of the 2015 campaign, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to bounce back from lost opportunities and make the most of their last month of play.

For the Cougars, the rest of the slate is an opportunity to avenge their loss against Stanford and prove they belong in the discussion among teams atop the Pac-12 North.

For the Sun Devils, Graham said the remainder of the season is about honoring the play of the seniors, and making the progress they anticipated making at the beginning of the season. Under Graham, ASU has become accustomed to winning close games, and in the past two weeks, the Sun Devils have fallen apart at the end of the game.

As both teams march toward bowl eligibility, their coaches know it’s about seizing the day and taking command of games in crunch time, rather than letting their opponents steal the spotlight as they’ve done of late.

“The reality of it is that we've lost two really close games, one to Utah and one to Oregon that we didn't -- and those are games that we won the year before,” Graham said. “That's what it boils down to every year. You've got to win the close games. We've got to pick ourselves off the ground, go to work.”

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