In each of the three matchups between Todd Graham’s Arizona State Sun Devils and Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars, Graham’s squad has figured out a way to pull away from the Cougars and win by margins of at least three touchdowns.
Even last year, when the Cougars led the Sun Devils 24-21 at halftime and racked up more than 600 passing yards total, ASU still left no doubt in the final outcome en route to a 52-31 victory.
The Sun Devils haven’t had much trouble with the Cougars since Graham arrived because of a defense that has capitalized on Washington State turnovers and an offense that has simply been too much for Leach’s traditionally porous defenses to handle.
Still, this Saturday’s contest threatens to change the narrative that has developed in the past three seasons, thanks to an upstart Cougars squad loaded with experienced play-makers at offensive skill positions and an opportunistic defense keeping the team in games.
At 5-3, Washington State is a missed field goal against Stanford away from owning a share of first place in the Pac-12 North. This year’s Cougars are battle-tested, having taken Stanford and Cal down to the wire and securing a victory against Oregon in overtime.
There are plenty of reasons behind the Cougars’ resurgence this season, but it’s not as if Leach and his staff are reinventing the wheel. Washington State is still running Leach’s famous “Air Raid” offense, a scheme as famous for the prolific statistics it typically produces as it is for its philosophical differences from more traditional offensive approaches.
“Most people run the ball to set up the pass, they do just the opposite and throw it,” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson explained. “It’s almost like they run it just to say they ran it, you know 12 times a game. Last year, I think out of 106 plays that they ran, they threw it 88 times. Maybe to rest his arm, I’m not sure.”
Patterson wasn’t far off in his assessment of the Cougars’ game plan from a season ago, as redshirt sophomore quarterback Luke Falk chucked the ball on 76 of the Cougars’ 100 offensive plays.
Making one of his first collegiate starts in place of an injured Connor Halliday, Falk’s 601 passing yards against ASU last fall marked the second most yards ever recorded by a Cougars’ quarterback.
The former walk-on shredded the Sun Devils’ secondary at times, but his inexperience got the best of him as he wound up throwing four interceptions.
In his first full season as a starter, Falk ranks fourth in the FBS in passing yards with 3,239, and Patterson says the quarterback has found the right fit in Leach’s offense.
“He (Falk) has a much better understanding of the system that they run and he does not stop moving the ball around,” Patterson said. “With screens, with the two receivers, I think one averages 100, the other averages 80 yards per game, so he’s doing a nice job moving the ball around.”
Patterson was referencing a pair of Falk’s top weapons in redshirt junior wide receiver Gabe Marks and redshirt senior wide receiver Dom Williams who both rank in the top 40 in the NCAA in receiving yards per game. Falk also has another potent weapon at his disposal in junior River Cracraft, who gives Washington State a third high volume target. Each of the three averages at least five receptions per game.
On its surface, the “Air Raid” offense is a daunting cover for defensive backfields. Every single skill position player is a threat to catch a pass, and the Cougars do a great job spacing the field and forcing defenses to cover as much ground as possible.
Nevertheless, ASU defensive backs coach Chris Ball said this is the type of opponent his unit looks forward to playing, because there are plenty of opportunities to make an impact on the game.
“We like this as a secondary coach and a defensive backs, we want to play against stuff like this,” Ball said. “This is what we look for, and an opportunity to play the team that throws the ball 70-plus times is something we look forward to. But it’s, you know, we have to worry about proper alignment and run the coverages that coach calls and do what the coaches ask them to do.”
Redshirt senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington echoed Ball’s sentiments, especially considering the secondary suffered quite a few breakdowns against Oregon. Carrington is looking at this week’s game as an opportunity to get back on track, and said ASU is looking forward to the test the Cougars provide.
“Playing [defensive back], you always want to have opportunities to go up and get the ball, and we know we’ll have plenty of those during the game,” Carrington said. “The main thing is just understanding their scheme and their tendencies.”
In each of Leach’s first three seasons as head coach, the Cougars were even more reliant on the pass than some of his Texas Tech teams that popularized the “Air Raid” offense.
The Cougars have never averaged more than 55 yards per game on the ground under Leach, and in turn, never won more than six games in a single season.
Though their offense is still predicated on moving the chains with passing plays, Washington State is keeping defenses honest with a rushing attack averaging more than 90 yards per game.
“I feel like they’re running the ball and starting to have a more balanced attack,” Carrington said. “That helps them out in both passing and running. They’re doing a great job just mixing it up and still executing their game plan and scheme each week.”
Patterson said the Cougars are running the ball more effectively this season because of a change in their approach at the point of attack. Instead of focusing on interior run plays designed to gash defenses up the middle, Washington State is attacking opponents on the perimeter.
Though he only has 27 carries through eight games, Patterson highlighted the play of Cougars’ redshirt freshman running back Keith Harrington. Harrington has a 7.6 yards per carry average in his limited role, but Patterson noted he’s the type of back Washington State is using to have success on the edge.
“They’ve changed it,” Patterson said of the Cougars’ run scheme. “They’ve got a little freshman running back who’s got great speed, so they’re doing a much better job of getting the ball on the perimeter. So that’s the biggest difference I’ve seen with them running the ball, instead of trying to run it inside.”
Washington State’s ability to run the ball could play a prominent role in the outcome of Saturday’s game, especially considering ASU has primarily used its nickel defense to defend the Cougars under Graham.
The Sun Devils haven’t had an issue stopping the Cougars’ ground attack over the last three years, but with an extra defensive back in the game and Washington State’s newly developed approach of running the ball on the perimeter, Ball said ASU has to have the same effectiveness in limiting the Cougars’ rushing success this time around.
“That’s one of the reasons they’re winning football games is because they’re running the ball good,” Ball said. “So if we’re in nickel and they run the ball, we have to be able to stop that.”
The improved running presence has eased the load a bit on Falk, who is making much better decisions this year than he was when he faced the Sun Devils a season ago. After throwing four interceptions in his start against ASU last year, Falk has significantly cut down on his turnovers and isn’t putting the ball in jeopardy.
Falk has thrown just six interceptions this season, and his ability to read defenses and dissect coverages is an aspect of his game that stands out to Carrington.
“I think he does a better job of just managing the game, understanding where his reads are, and picking precisely where he wants to get the ball,” Carrington said. “He’s eliminating turnovers and that’s always a great thing for a quarterback and he has those attributes.”
For a team that slings the ball around as much as the Cougars, Falk has maintained a methodical style this season. Washington State doesn’t take as many vertical chances as some teams, and the Cougars’ longest passing play of the season is just 43 yards.
Though Falk may have a slightly more passive approach to the offense than some quarterbacks have had under Leach, the head coach is still as aggressive as any in the country.
This season, the Cougars have attempted 26 fourth down tries, and converted on 18 of those opportunities. That success rate ranks No. 20 in the country, but no other team with a conversion rate in the top 50 has attempted more than 20 fourth down tries.
“You have to go on the field knowing that look, no matter where they are, especially once the ball crosses the 50, you’re in four-down territory,” Patterson said. “They’ll even do it backed up if the situation is right. So you have to change your mindset, you can’t relax just cause you got them in a third down and held them.”
That trademark aggressiveness from a Leach-coached team has manifested itself in another form this season: on defense. Though the Cougars rank just seventh in the Pac-12 in total defense, their attacking style of play is commanding the attention of ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell.
Norvell said he was impressed by the way the Cougars swarmed to the football against Stanford, and improved athleticism across the defensive front has made Washington State more dynamic on that side of the ball.
“You sit there, you watch that team, they play hard,” Norvell said. “I mean, you have 11 guys on the field, they’re all going to fly to the football. I really like, they do a great job with their schemes. A lot of movement, not necessarily always pressure, but a lot of movement up front. Their D-line, they got some really athletic guys up front. I think you see a team that is extremely motivated. “
On Saturday, Washington State became the first Pac-12 defense to truly neutralize the Stanford offense, holding the Cardinal to just three first half points. The Cougars limited the Cardinal to just 86 passing yards and held Heisman hopeful Christian McCaffrey to 107 yards on 22 rushing attempts.
Sophomore running back Kalen Ballage said ASU must be mindful of Washington State’s blitz packages because Ballage said the Cougars’ ability to impact the quarterback has keyed their defensive success this season.
“They pop backers and blitz a little bit when they have to so we have to be able to pick those kind of things when they send those blitzes and protect (senior quarterback) Mike (Bercovici) and everybody just got to do a solid job on the offensive line,” Ballage said. “Receivers have to get off press coverage and be able to get the ball in their hands quick and move forward that way.”
ASU hasn’t had trouble moving the ball against Washington State with Norvell calling plays, but Ballage indicated the Sun Devils are expecting a much more even battle this Saturday.
After watching the Cougars shut down Stanford’s offense for much of their contest on Saturday, Ballage said ASU needs to analyze what Washington State is trying to take away on each play and take advantage of the opportunities that are presented.
“They’re just a solid football team, you know,” Ballage said. “They were 3-9 the year before and now they’re, I think they’re 6-2 (actually 5-3) or something like that. They’re a good football team, they’re solid offensively and defensively and we will have to take what they give us.”
Under Leach, the Cougars have put a premium on maximizing tempo and running as many plays as possible. Washington State isn’t concerned about winning the time of possession battle, but rather generating as many offensive opportunities as possible.
With that in mind, senior wide receiver Devin Lucien said ASU needs to be able to run the ball to allow its defense an opportunity to catch its breath.
After rushing for 344 yards in a 61-55 triple overtime loss against Oregon, ASU reestablished its perimeter rushing attack and Lucien said the Sun Devils will rely on Ballage and fellow sophomore running back Demario Richard to shoulder much of the offensive load.
“We know we’re going against a pass offense all the time so you know Demario (Richard) and Kalen (Ballage) are both coming off really good games so hopefully we can get those guys the ball and have them make some big plays,” Lucien said.
For a Washington State team that has inched slightly closer to ASU in each of the past three games they’ve played, the 2015 matchup figures could represent a turning point. So what will it take for the Cougars finally close the gap?
Based on how Washington State has performed this season, the Cougars need to continue to take strides in the right direction, while forcing ASU into the same, familiar struggles that Lucien notes have troubled them all season long.
“Just being inconsistent,” Lucien said. “We just have to get more consistent on all phases of our offense and just start executing. I feel like we’re just a slippery slope. Up and down and up and down. We just have to steadily go up.”