SunDevilSource.com: Washington State has a good chance to have its first winning season in the fourth year under Mike Leach. Is this the best team Leach has had and what's been the biggest differences this season that have enabled the improved success?
Barry Bolton: It is the best team he's had in his four seasons, there's no debate about that. But it also isn't where they want it to be - WSU fans have seen the Cougs play well on one play followed by the next where they didn't execute to their potential nor to the level of the play before.
There are a lot of things one can point to for WSU being a win away from bowl eligibility with four to play but the two biggest factors:
Offensively, Luke Falk is doing some great work not only with his reads and throws, but also in checking to the running game. WSU is never going to run "a lot" under Leach. But Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow have made significant, tangible strides in their second years of playing on Saturdays - you can see it in how they gain the edge, plant and go, etc. And Keith Harrington in his first year, while still learning of course, is a quick 'back who can do some damage. All three have improved as pass catchers from fall camp and Falk is using them smartly. Leach is the face of the program and gets the credit, and deservedly so, but RBs coach Jim Mastro has done great work in both development and recruiting, outside receivers coach Graham Harrell as a first-year assistant coach has people already tabbing him a future head man down the road (after some years of seasoning and experience of course) and Clay McGuire has done a solid job with the Cougar o-line.
Defensively, WSU hasn't played four quarters yet in a single game. But you can see the improvement on the d-line, at linebacker, in the defensive backfield from Leach's previous three seasons. WSU incorporated a nickel into their base this season and former walk on Parker Henry (under the guidance of first year OLB/Nickels coach Roy Manning) has been impressive of late after assuming the starting role. Some of the young significant contributors and/or starters on D -- can't name them all but Cougars like DL Destiny Vaeao, Darryl Paulo, Hercules Mata'afa, and Daniel Ekuale, LB Peyton Pelluer, CB Darrien Molton, have WSU fans thinking this is only the start. New DC Alex Grinch is getting a lot of the limelight, understandably so, for improved play out of the Cougar D but you also have to point to Ken Wilson, who coaches the MIK and WIL 'backers -- he's a very underrated coach nationally. That said, and back to the four quarters mention at the start of this paragraph, fans this season have never been quite sure what they're going to see from the Cougar D.
SunDevilSource: Leach called for an investigation of ASU this week for its practices related to the stealing of signals, which ASU coach Todd Graham admitted but nonetheless said was done by the program within what's permitted by the rules. Is there a lot of animosity here from the Washington State side and what's the mood of the program like with regard to these assertions leading up to this game?
Bolton: I don't think there's any extra animosity involved. I think it's gamesmanship more than anything else. I doubt the WSU players or coaches have given it much thought, if any, since Leach mentioned it on the conference call.
SunDevilSource: Who are the Cougars' key players to know on both sides of the ball and what makes them good?
Bolton: In addition to the players mentioned above, safety Shalom Luani packs a real wallop and apart from a few occasions here and there, fans have seen him get better and better in various aspects of that safety spot in his first season at WSU (junior college transfer). Wideout Gabe Marks has been stellar, his route running and increased ability to find the sweet spots in coverage have been eye opening. Wil Jeremiah Allison and MIK Peyton Pelluer have been solid, while the Cougar o-line has for the most part been very good across the board. WSU has had the same starting five every game so far this season.
SunDevilSource: In what areas is WSU susceptible to being attacked on offense and defense from a scheme or personnel standpoint based on how this season has unfolded so far?
Bolton: When a defense has gotten heat on Falk without compromising too much on coverage, WSU's effectiveness has taken a decided turn -- from flying high to walking slow. Oregon State blitzed Falk and he carved them up, but other teams have blitzed and had more success in slowing WSU's roll. On D, WSU has been susceptible at times to not holding an edge and over-pursuit. A running QB was a thorn in the side against Stanford and while Mike Bercovici isn't Taylor Kelly as a runner - I fully expect ASU to run the QB more vs. WSU based on how the Cougs were unable to contain Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan in the third quarter.
SunDevilSource: What would be the biggest keys to the Cougars success in this game?
Bolton: Protect Falk, stay at home on defense while still playing aggressive and no major special teams gaffes. WSU had no major special teams breakdowns this past Saturday -- a very rare occurrence this season. I have to believe ASU spent some serious time this practice week working to get their special teams return units in tip top shape headed into Saturday. But back to when WSU is on offense: ASU is probably going to keep sending the house at Falk, the o-line and 'backs when in max protect are going to have to do enough, long enough, for Falk to stay comfortable and make the throw. For Falk's part, he's held onto the ball too long at times. He'll need to make his reads but if something isn't there and things are closing in, he needs to do a better job of throwing it away. If things go according to plan for WSU, I can see the Cougs putting up a good deal of points. But if ASU gets consistent pressure, that changes things and potentially in a big way.
SunDevilSource: What type of game are you expecting and what's your score prediction?
Bolton: A back and forth style of game - even if a team gets out to a decent lead, I can easily see either squad clawing their way back and probably not taking a lot of time to do it. CF.C Analyst Matt Moore has studied the Sun Devils closely, he predicts: Cougs 38, Sun Devils 33.