Next on Arizona State’s long list of high-powered offensive opponents this season is Washington State, complete with its signature Air Raid offense. The Cougars (4-2 overall, 3-0 in Pac-12) are on a four-game win streak after dropping their home opener to Eastern Washington 45-42 and losing to Boise State 31-28 the following week.
WSU demolished Idaho 56-6 in week three, beat Oregon 51-33 in week four, in week five beat Stanford 42-16 on the road and Saturday night beat UCLA 27-21 at Martin Stadium.
In ASU’s matchup against WSU last year, the Sun Devils jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter only to see the Cougars rally from a fourth quarter deficit in a 38-24 WSU victory on Nov. 7, 2015.
It was ASU’s third-straight loss of the 2015 season and WSU’s critical comeback game after it lost 30-28 to Stanford the week prior. Dropping below .500 to a 4-5 record at that point in the season, ASU head coach Todd Graham dubbed the Sun Devils' year “a disappointing season.”
This season, ASU is 5-2 overall, 2-2 in Pac-12 play as it gets ready to face the Cougars at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday.
“We got to get it back on track this week,” Graham said. “Playing a very good Washington State football team. Beat Oregon, Stanford, UCLA so we got a big challenge ahead of us and we have to find a way to get this one and go to the next one because there is just five left. This thing could go a lot of different directions, but all we can control is the one in front of us.”
Leading the Cougars is WSU head coach Mike Leach, who is in his fifth year as head coach after being hired on Nov. 30, 2011. Leach, the 2015 Pac-12 co-Coach of the Year, has guided the Cougars to two bowl appearances in his first four years, a first for a WSU head coach.
Since his arrival in Pullman, the Cougars have consistently been near the top of the nation in passing offense and have only gotten better over the past five years. In Leach’s first season at WSU, the offense was No. 9 nationally with 330.42 yards per game. In 2013, WSU ranked fourth in passing offense, setting a school-record with 368 yards per game.
In 2014, Leach’s offense led the nation in passing at 477.7 yards per game, the second-highest total in FBS history, trailing only Houston’s mark of 511.2 yards in 1989.
In 2015, the Cougars led the nation in passing at 389.5 yards per game and finished third in the Pac-12 North, behind Oregon and Stanford. With a 9-4 overall record and a 6-3 conference record, WSU capped its season with a 20-14 Sun Bowl victory over Miami.
“Obviously it helps playing a similar style of offense (Air Raid), but you know, coach Leach is in my opinion, the architect of it (Air Raid) so you are going to get the best version and that’s not to take anything away from anyone else,” Graham said. “Each one has their own versions, but it does help you. You are going to play very similar formations.”
This season, the Cougars are No. 3 in the Pac-12 in scoring offense and total offense, averaging 41 points per game and 501.5 yards per game.
WSU junior quarterback Luke Falk, who earned 2015 All-Pac- 12 first team honors, is again leading the Cougars offense this season, averaging 361.3 yards per game through the air.
Falk is 211-of- 295 passing for 2,113 yards on the season with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions.
The 6-foot-4, 216-pound quarterback was 448-of-645 passing last year for 4,556 yards and 38 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Falk led the nation in passing average at 380.5 yards per game and was third in total offense at 370.9 yards per game.
At Falk’s dispense in the receiving corps is his main target, senior wide receiver Gabe Marks. Marks is No. 2 in the Pac-12 in catches per game with 40 receptions for 337 yards and six touchdowns.
Marks started all 13 games last season and was named to the 2015 All-Pac 12 First Team. The 6-foot, 190-pound receiver had 104 receptions for 1,192 yards and 15 touchdowns. His receptions and receiving touchdowns ranked second and first, respectively, all-time for a season at WSU.
In addition to Marks, WSU senior wide receiver River Cracraft and sophomore wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr. are tied for No. 6 in the Pac-12 with receptions per game, both with a 5.2 catch per game average. Cracraft has 31 catches for 391 yards, one touchdown while Martin Jr. has 31 catches for 352 yards and three touchdowns.
In the run game, WSU has a trio of running backs taking the bulk of the load, but is near the bottom of the conference, only picking up 140.2 yards on the ground.
However, in the Cougars game against UCLA Saturday night, all three of WSU’s touchdowns came on the ground. WSU junior running back Gerald Wicks had two touchdowns and junior running back Jamal Morrow had one. It was the first time in Falk’s career as the starting quarterback that he failed to throw a touchdowns pass in a game.
“The thing that impresses me about them is how they are running the football,” Graham said.
Wicks, 6-foot, 227 pounds, has 49 carries for 221 yards and seven touchdowns. Wicks played in all 13 games last season for WSU and led the Cougars in rushing with 107 carries for 610 yards and three touchdowns. He added 38 receptions for 128 yards.
Leading the Cougars this season in rushing yards per game is Morrow, who has 51 carries for 323 yards and four rushing touchdowns. Additionally, the 5-foot- 9, 201-pound running back has 24 receptions for 218 yards and two receiving touchdowns.
Redshirt freshman running back James Williams rounds out the Cougars’ trio of backs and has 46 carries for 294 yards and four touchdowns this season. The 5-foot-11, 199-pound back also has 19 receptions for 136 yards.
And while the Cougars have failed to get a lot going rushing offensively, their rushing defense has been stout, good for No. 1 in the Pac-12, allowing 104.5 yards per game.
In its 42-16 victory against Stanford, WSU’s defense tallied four sacks, snagged two interceptions, forced two fumbles and held Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey to a season-low 35 rushing yards on eight carries.
Sophomore defensive lineman Herc Mata’afa leads the Cougars defense in the trenches, recording 24 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and four quarterback hurries through six games. The 6-foot- 2, 255-pound player earned All-Pac- 12 honorable mention honors last season.
“They are attacking, they move, they try to create havoc,” Graham said of WSU’s defense. “You can tell that the kids play hard and but mostly, they are an attacking group and they are going to try to force you into a lot of errors and stuff like that so they’ve done well. I think that’s the big difference in their team. It’s been how they’ve played defense. You know they are always going to put up the numbers and the yards on offense, but they got them attacking and playing solid on defense.”
Leading the Cougars' defense is WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Grinch is in his second season after being named the defensive coordinator on Jan. 14, 2015. In his first season with the Cougars, WSU allowed an average of 27.6 points per game, a drastic improvement from 38.6 points per game in 2014. Additionally, WSU was at the top of the conference in pass defense, allowing 223.5 yards per game compared to being No. 11 in the conference, allowing 296.6 passing yards per game in 2014.
This season, WSU is No. 7 in scoring defense and total defense in the Pac-12, giving up 25.3 points per game and 382.7 yards per game.
WSU junior linebacker Peyton Pelluer leads the team with 39 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack and one forced fumble. Pelluer earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors last season and led WSU in tackles with 101 total and added 11 tackles for loss. And while WSU’s run defense has made opponents one-dimensional, in turn, the Cougars’ pass defense is No. 10 in the conference, allowing opponents to throw for an average of 278.2 yards per game.
WSU’s secondary is mixed between veterans and newcomers, with freshman Jalen Thompson starting at strong safety and sophomore Darrien Molton starting at cornerback. WSU senior safety/nickel corner Shalom Luani leads the veteran back line alongside junior free safety Robert Taylor and junior cornerback Marcellus Pippins.
Luani, who earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors last year, is third on the team in tackles for loss with 4.5 for 19 yards. Additionally, the 205-pound safety has two interceptions, three breakups and five passes defended.
WSU is No. 2 in the Pac-12 in both interceptions and turnover margin, with nine picks and a plus-eight margin.