Riding a four-game win streak headed into Saturday’s game against Arizona State, Washington State is looking for its first win at Sun Devil Stadium since its 28-16 victory over ASU on Nov. 10, 2001.
The last time WSU faced off against ASU, it beat the Sun Devils 38-24 at Martin Stadium last year after ASU jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter only to see the Cougars rally from a fourth-quarter deficit. WSU quarterback Luke Falk threw for 297 yards and five touchdowns in what was the first of three straight wins for the Cougars.
After dropping its first two games of the 2016 season, WSU hasn’t lost since and has relied on strong play from its defense as well as a newfound strength in its running game on offense.
“You got to play a perfect game against a good opponent that is playing well,” ASU defensive line coach Joe Seumalo said about Saturday’s matchup. “They (WSU) started slow but now they are playing at a whole different level. It will be a good challenge.”
Despite beating Air Raid teams in Texas Tech and Cal earlier in the season, ASU head coach Todd Graham said WSU brings a different style of the Air Raid to Tempe, one that he’s called the “best version” of it behind WSU head coach Mike Leach.
“Each team is different,” Graham said. “The difference in this team is how they play defense. The matchups are all different and I would tell you that I think Washington State is a better football team than those teams (Texas Tech and Cal) and we got to play our best game.”
In ASU’s 68-55 win over Texas Tech on Sept.10, quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw for 540 yards and five touchdowns. In the Sun Devils’ 51-41 win over California on Sept. 24, ASU let quarterback Davis Webb throw for 478 yards and five touchdowns.
“Mahomes caused different problem that Davis Webb,” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “Davis Webb causes different problems than Falk, so a lot of it can be personnel driven, but the concepts are the same.”
Seumalo said WSU’s protections along the offensive line are most similar to Texas Tech and by playing two Air Raid teams in Texas Tech and Cal earlier in the season, it helps ASU due to the multiple similarities among the teams across the board.
Leading the Cougars this season is Falk, who earned 2015 All-Pac-12 first team honors and led the nation in passing average at 380.5 yards per game and was third in total offense at 370.9 yards per game last season.
“It’s Falk’s third year in the system so you just see a more comfortable guy know where to go with the ball,” Patterson said. “The key for us, same thing we tried to go against Webb and Mahomes, don’t just line up in the coverage. Try to keep him (Falk) off balance by making him second guess maybe hold the ball a little bit longer and that’s when you see the ball coming out real quick when people just line up because tempo. When people go really fast they line up fast and then they see the coverage. Our whole game plan is to put doubt in his mind to what he sees in our coverage concept.”
Falk, 6-foot-4, 216 pounds, is averaging 361.3 yards per game through the air this season. He is 211-of-295 passing for 2,113 yards on the season with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“You got to disguise your coverage because if he knows what coverage you are in, he kills you,” ASU secondary coach T.J. Rushing said. “He knows every down is going to be this and has the answers for it. You just got to get him to pat the ball a little bit and see what happens.”
As far as getting pressure to Falk, ASU junior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said on film, the Sun Devils have seen other teams successfully get to Falk with a three-man rush so that’s what their plan will be on Saturday.
“Washington State, they tend to hold the ball longer,” Smallwood said. “We have seen on film, guys getting to the quarterback and teams putting pressure with a three-man rush and that’s going to be our plan and we have to execute that.”
WSU’s offensive line has allowed 14 sacks through six games.
Getting to the quarterback will be easier said than done for ASU, with WSU’s offensive line ranked No. 2 in the country by Pro Football Focus.
“They are protecting well and that is what their offense is,” Seumalo said. “They are doing a good job of running the ball and do a good job of combining those two areas and keeping people on their heels so it will be a good challenge.”
In the receiving corps, WSU senior wide receiver Gabe Marks is Falk’s No.1 target. Marks is No. 2 in the Pac-12 in catches per game with 40 receptions for 337 yards and six touchdowns.
ASU sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr said he will be trailing Marks on Saturday, a responsibility Orr has taken on against other opponents, including ASU's game against Cal when he trailed junior wide receiver Chad Hansen. Orr said on Tuesday he was at about 60 percent health. Orr has been facing a nagging right knee injury he suffered in the second quarter of ASU's win over UCLA.
“I want the best every week and I feel like I’m the best so I want the best,” Orr said.
Despite the big target on Marks, the Cougars have multiple other receivers getting their shot at receptions in WSU’s pass-heavy offense, including WSU senior wide receiver River Cracraft and sophomore wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr.
Cracraft has 31 catches for 391 yards, one touchdown while Martin Jr. has 31 catches for 352 yards and three touchdowns this season.
“Just like most Air Raids that you got to be dialed in on every receiver that you have there,” Rushing said. “You can’t just roll the coverage to one main guy that the quarterback is always going to look to. Falk does a good job of spreading the ball around and those guys do a great job catching it. You got to pay attention to everyone on the field.”
While ASU will have to keep a close eye on the multiple receivers on the field, it will also have to account for WSU’s trio of running backs out of the backfield.
“I feel like this week they are going to try to run it more because of what happened last week (against Colorado) and we allowed the run,” Orr said. “We allowed over 300 yards rushing so I feel like they are going to run a lot more and they are going to throw the ball as well so we are going to be ready for it.”
A big difference in WSU’s scheme this season compared to seasons past has been its increased emphasis on running the ball.
“It seems like sometimes it looks like they are taking advantage of people going in an odd front, taking advantage of people going in an even front so therefore they feel like they can get an edge here or there in terms of running the ball,” Seumalo said.
WSU junior running back Gerald Wicks, junior running back Jamal Morrow and redshirt freshman running back James Williams all share the load for the Cougars, with all around 50 carries this season.
“They are good backs,” Smallwood said. “The one thing they are doing this year is running the ball well. They are running the ball better than they ever have so they have good backs and they have a good offensive line. They execute the few run plays, they execute them well.”
WSU’s backs also catch a lot of passes out of the backfield, a self-proclaimed weakness for ASU’s defense according to Smallwood.
“That is going to be one of our focuses,” Smallwood said. “To emphasize the backs coming out of the backfield, that’s a lot of times where we get killed at so that’s going to be our emphasis and we have to be sound in our assignments.”
ASU senior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola said WSU’s main focus leaking its backs out in space is so they can create good one-on-one matches with their opponents. To combat that, Moeakiola said ASU will have to make sure their communication and assignments are sound.
“Not only do we have to honor that Air Raid offense, but we have to stop the run,” ASU junior Marcus Ball said. “First and foremost, to win ball games you have to stop the run and that’s what we pride ourselves in doing. Make a team one-dimensional.”
In addition to WSU building up its run game this season, the Cougars rushing defense has been stout, good for No. 1 in the Pac-12, allowing 104.5 yards per game.
ASU redshirt freshman offensive lineman Zach Robertson, who was taking first team reps at right tackle this week due to injuries along ASU’s offensive line, said almost all of WSU’s snaps on defense incorporate movement along the trenches.
“They move a lot, about 95 percent of their plays they are moving and slants and so it’s all about confusion,” Robertson said. “We are just making sure we are staying on blocks and keeping control of ourselves and getting after them. When a team slants, sometimes there are opportunities to get big plays so we will take advantage of it as best as we can.”
ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said the Sun Devils haven’t seen a lot of slants from opponents this season, aside from some movement in ASU’s 32-28 victory over UTSA on Sept. 16. The key will be training players, especially the new players in the rotation, how to properly block against movement along the trenches.
“UTSA did some of it so it’s really hard to say whether we’ve had trouble,” Thomsen said. “Our defense does some movement with some of their blitz packages so we are fairly accustomed to seeing all that. Washington State does a great job with their movements and some of their edge blitzes and so we are working on that and trying to get guys to recognize keys of when it might be common and things like that and get in the right position to get on a block and sustain a block.”
Thomsen elaborated on the differences between a defense that incorporates a lot of slants versus a defense that plays more straightforward, saying specifically movement hinders an offensive lineman who “is a lesser athlete” than an athletic defensive lineman.
“There is two ways to approach it defensively,” Thomsen said. “Some people just prefer to sit in a gap and anchor down and try to not let you move off the ball and some people are trying to move and that’s just athletically a defensive lineman is going to be a better athlete and if he’s moving on you, instead of just sitting there, it’s like trying to hit a moving target and it’s a little bit harder on a guy who is a lesser athlete, but that’s why you got combination blocks. You work together and that shouldn’t be anything that holds us back.”
One player on WSU’s defense that stands out to Thomsen is WSU sophomore defensive lineman Herc Mata’afa. A pillar on the WSU defense, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound lineman has recorded 24 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and four quarterback hurries through six games. Mata'afa earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors last season.
“No. 50 (Mata’afa) he’s really active,” Thomsen said. “Really good player. We played against him last year. Some of the other guys are new and then some of their interior guys are really good. They got a good active front and I think they are leading the Pac-12 in run defense and they just play hard and do a really good job of playing hard and playing physical and their scheme is good.”
ASU tight ends coach DelVaughn Alexander said WSU’s defensive is “very active, aggressive and they play hard,” with less star playmakers on defense and more of a team effort on that side of the ball.
This season, WSU has started each of its six games running a base nickel defense.
“I think it’s more playing good team defense and I think that’s what they do well and in order to win and win at a championship level, you have to be physical and that starts at running the football and protecting the football,” Alexander said. “I’ve been in this conference a long time and that’s what I told my players. They are a good team and they are a good team that takes pride in being at Washington State and playing hard.”
ASU junior running back Demario Richard said WSU has “always been a scrappy team” ever since he entered college. Similar to Colorado, Richard said the Cougars are a very veteran-heavy team with a lot of experience across the board.
ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said he has been very impressed with WSU’s second-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, both with the defense as a whole and specifically in the secondary.
“Their coordinator there, I’m really impressed with him,” Lindsey said. “He coaches the secondary and they do a lot of things in the secondary so they are very well coached. I think they are playing extremely hard. I was with Auburn in 2013 we played those guys. They were good on defense I think then too.”
ASU senior wide receiver Tim White said WSU is very aggressive with its secondary play and more times than not, players come down to support the run and tend to come down on bubble screens a lot.
“They come down on bubble screens and they play those really aggressive and that should give us a lot of shots,” White said. “Give us a lot of big plays, we just have to capitalize on it.
“It’s going to be a lot of one-on-ones with safeties, a lot of one-on-ones with corners so the receivers are just going to have to make plays down the field.”