Expert preview and viewing guide: WSU at ASU

Arizona State (5-2, 2-2) takes on Washington State (4-2, 3-0) on Homecoming at Sun Devil Stadium Saturday at 7 p.m. Here's our expert preview of the Cougars and a game prediction.

Washington State Offensive Scheme

In Mike Leach's fourth season at Washington State in 2015, the Cougars turned the corner. It was the first winning season at Washington State since 2003 under Bill Doba and brought a lot of excitement to the Palouse. 

The 2016 season has started in a similar fashion. In both years the Cougars lost to an FCS opponent to start the season and had a rough entrance to the season before responding by improving significantly through the rest of September and into October. 

Overall, the Cougars are 13-6 overall and a remarkable 9-3 in the Pac-12 since the start of the 2015 season, including 3-0 to start the Pac-12 this season. They easily beat Oregon and Stanford in back-to-back games to start conference play and then topped UCLA 27-21 last week. 

Leach's patented Air Raid offense has been fully implemented in Pullman now, and has a triggerman in junior quarterback Luke Faulk who now has significant experience to go along with his talent. It's primarily a single back offense that doesn't have much use for tight ends and uses four receiver sets on most downs. Historically, Leach has thrown the ball on 80-90 percent of plays from scrimmage, but this year he's running it more than he has in years (nearly 40 percent) and there's been an increase of two-back formations because they have the talent to do it. The Cougars are averaging 4.5 yards per carry, which is more than Arizona State's 3.9 yards per carry. 

Against the man coverage that ASU likes to play, the Air Raid uses a lot of quick game throws which incorporate underneath rub routes, shallow crosses and other concepts which get receivers running more lateral to the line of scrimmage. Last year they beat the Sun Devils' defensive backs with a steady diet of quick slants. That isn't to suggest the Cougars don't throw the ball down the field, because they do, a lot. But there a lot of shorter, high percentage type throws and the Cougars overall complete 71.4 percent of their passes, just behind Washington atop the Pac-12.

Washington State uses a fair amount of slot receiver motions and a lot of routes run by the running back, but nothing more common than the flat route designed to drag a linebacker to the area or force defense to play some type of zone coverage with a defensive back in the flat, and perhaps more importantly, to maximize the spreading of defenses across the width of the field. ASU has struggled to defend running backs incorporated heavily into the passing game and the Cougars throw to their backs more than anyone in the league. 

This year they're spending more time in 20 personnel looks with offset backs than even last year, when they did so with an uptick, and they'll send both out on wheel routes in opposite directions trying to get at least one working against a linebacker. They'll also run both up through the A gap and then spray them out in different directions from there. This allows them to feign max protection and then slip backs to the linebacker level. 

As defenses have gone to more base nickel personnel groupings with fewer and lighter bodies in the box, the Cougars have not been hesitant to run the ball into interior A and B gaps with zone blocking out of single back sets, and even will mix in lead zone and stretch zone to the perimeter out of the two back sets. They use three backs almost interchangeably and their top two backs are averaging 6.2 yards per carry, which is very impressive on 97 combined rushes. 

This increased running has given the team more balance than ever, but its bread and butter is always going to be slinging the ball all over the yard, and usually use max protection with its backs when it wants to mix in a five step drop of the quarterback and try to get the ball down the field, usually on deep fades. 

Washington State Offensive Personnel

QB Luke Falk (No. 4) -- Pressed into action in 2014 against ASU following an injury to then-starter Connor Halliday, Falk had 600 yards passing on 74 attempts but four costly turnovers. Falk has steadily improved as a decisions maker, but the Cougars throw the ball so much there will always be takeaway opportunities and he's thrown five interceptions against 16 touchdowns in five games this season. He's completed a higher percentage of his passes as a starter than anyone else in the Pac-12 in recent years, at more than 70 percent. Part of that is how well Washington State gets the ball out quickly on short-area throws and three step drops. 

WR Gabe Marks (No. 9) -- The Cougars will move their perimeter receivers around a good bit but the 6-foot-0, 190 pound Marks is the top target and he's more likely to align in the boundary than any of his teammates. Last year he led the Pac-12 with 104 catches and 15 touchdown receptions. This year he has 40 catches, which is tied for third in the Pac-12 as opponents have really geared to try to limit him and others have taken advantage. He's fluid and reliable, a good route runner who fits the system well -- but to be sure, it is system-driven success. He's not as athletically gifted as a half dozen other receivers in the league. 

WR River Cracraft (No. 21) -- A four-year starter who has deal with some injuries in the last year, Cracraft has 31 catches for 391 yards and one touchdown with a 12.6 yards per reception average. He moves around a lot but primarily plays inside at the 'Y' position as a bigger slot at 6-foot-0 and 200 pounds, and is a tactician who understands how to get into routes successfully at the line of scrimmage, and find soft spots in zone coverages, and get open quickly. There's also a big play capability, particularly outside the numbers. 

WR Robert Lewis (No. 15) -- The 'H' receiver, Lewis is an undersized junior at 5-foot-9, 165 pounds. He hasn't been targeted as much this season and only has 12 catches, but Lewis plays an important role nonetheless because he's frequently motioned and shifted around the formation. The Cougars try to get defenses to adjust their coverage quickly before the snap through this action in a way that induces communication breakdowns and assignment errors. 

RBs Jamal Morrow (No. 25), Gerard Wicks (No. 23), James Williams (No. 32)  -- The Cougars use these three backs pretty much interchangeably but Wicks gets the short yardage and goal line carries as the biggest and hardest running of the three. He's also a better protector, so he's really the third down back. The other two are better overall athletes, more capable at breaking off bigger runs and being more of a longer range threat as receivers. For just being a redshirt freshman, Williams is very impressive at 5-foot-11 and 199 pounds. 

Washington State offensive line -- The Cougars return three starters from last season and have new starters at left tackle and left guard. They are built to throw the ball and are just average from a physicality standpoint up front even though they run the ball reasonably well. This shows up most often against bull rushers, who have had an ability to collapse the pocket around Falk. As opposed to other teams in the league, there is no clear singular glaring weakness on the line from a personnel standpoint. The left tackle Andre Dillard has the makings of a potential standout as he develops. A sign of how the Cougars play, they have a 6-foot-8 starter at left guard, Cody O'Connell. 

ASU Defense Against Washington State

This is a dangerous match-up for ASU because the Cougars run the ball well enough to force ASU to keep inside linebackers Salamo Fiso and D.J. Calhoun on the field together on all base downs but neither is ideally suited to play against the pass, and particuarly versus teams that throw the ball very successfully over the middle third of the field, and to their running backs. Of the Air Raid offenses that ASU's faced this season, the Cougars do this better than the others, and also identify how to generate favorable match-ups, which will include Calhoun having to cover backs on wheel routes. 

The Sun Devils play a lot of man defense at the line of scrimmage and the Cougars like to attack this with rub route concepts to get two defenders sticking on one receiver while another comes open. It requires a lot of communication and working together so that the defensive players don't get in each others' way, or get taken out by the pick player. 

ASU's cornerbacks failed to prevent inside releases when using inside leverage last year against Washington State, and have to prevent these types of routes from being run on time, especially when they're blitzing because it opens up the field to big play opportunities. 

Getting to Faulk is hard because the Cougars either get the ball out quickly with three step drops on five man protections, or else keep six in to get the ball down the field. The most important thing to success is disguising coverages in a way that tricks Faulk into thinking ASU is in man when it's in zone coverage. That's easier said than done with how well the Cougars move up-tempo to force quick set up by the defense to reveal its coverage shell. But if they do it well, they can get some takeaway opportunities. 

Washington State Defensive Scheme

It's been proven extremely difficult to pair a successful defense with the Air Raid offense given the openness and high scoring way in which games tend to be played, and one of the philosophical questions about how high a team's ultimate ceiling is as a result is an open subject for debate. 

Even so, the Cougars have steadily improved on defense in the last couple years and should now be considered a very respectable unit. This has remained the case even as the Cougars have lost a handful of their top defensive players from last season. Second-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who spent the previous three years coaching safeties at Missouri, has his unit playing extremely hard and with a great deal of passion, and the approach has been very sound schematically. 

Visibly, the Cougars resemble ASU's defense more than most teams in the Pac-12. They've transitioned to what some would consider a base 4-2-5 or nickel and use senior Shalom Luani as a hybrid player on the field side, much in the way the Sun Devils use junior Laiu Moeakiola that same way as its Spur. Whether you consider this a 4-3 or a 4-2-5 is subject to interpretation but functionally it's ostensibly the same either way. Luani played the boundary safety position last year but has moved up to the Cougars nickel spot, which is really like ASU's Spur. 

Washington State also uses a boundary hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker in a manner similar to ASU's Devil backer position. This player will operate sometimes from a 3-point stance in a way that presents as an odd-front look, but really isn't in how the position is utilized.  Just like ASU, the Cougars will shift and tweak their alignments around a lot pre-snap and use a lot of different alignments, often even shifting multiple gaps from an over to under front or vice versa. 

Also similar to ASU, the Cougars aggressively slant their front and will overload pressure to force action and try to get to the offensive backfield and limit the run. They've done this very successfully in 2016, and passed the Sun Devils last week atop the Pac-12 in run defense. Both teams are giving up 3.7 yards-per-carry. 

It's not all the same though. The Cougars do flip their safeties based on ball location as ASU does but don't tend to do the same with their cornerbacks, and perhaps the biggest difference is Washington State plays way more relaxed coverage with its perimeter defensive backs than the Sun Devils. The biggest reason for this, most likely, is because they don't blitz nearly as much as ASU. 

When the Cougars do bring pressure, it's almost never more than five defenders and almost never involves a defensive back. Unlikely other teams in the Pac-12 that tend to only bring five man pressures and only from linebackers, however, the Cougars have more varied blitzes and use a variety of stunts and twist games to try to generate protection mistakes -- two offensive linemen on one defender. But none of their starting linebackers has more than one sack and their action as part of the blitz action is usually as a decoy to get one of the down linemen free. 

Where the Cougars tend to struggle is with finding the right balance between running well to the football on the perimeter as a team and over-pursuing in a way that allows a lot of clean vertical attacks on read option runs or counters, or against flow screens. 

Washington State Defensive Personnel

LB Peyton Pelluer (No. 47) -- The Cougars' version of ASU junior SAM backer Salamo Fiso, Pelluer is a little undersized but runs to the ball well and is hard nosed. Pelluer leads the team in tackles with 39, five of which are for loss. He's a straight run stopping between the tackle inside backer. 

DB Shalom Luani (No. 18) -- A hybrid safety, Lunai is arguably the Cougars' best defensive payer. His favorite thing to do seems to be attacking the run and he has adjusted well to playing in the alley closer to the line of scrimmage this year. Lunai is really passionate and closes to the football quickly even coming across the field to the flat on the field side to make plays, and he'll even push a teammate out of the way to hunt it. But he's quite overzealous at times and lacks ball awareness in the run game at times and will overrun the play. Luani is instinctive and has two interceptions. 

DE Hercules Mata'afa (No. 50) -- Another player with a high-revving motor, Mata'afa moved around more last year on the line than this year, when he's primarily been at the end postion. Mata'afa is very good at getting lateral quickly and into gaps before linemen can get a leverage advantage. Mata'afa is the team's best pass rusher and most disruptive force and his team-leading 9.5 tackles for loss and three sacks make this year. But the trade off is he can be run at. 

CBs Darrien Molton (No. 3) and Marcellus Pippins (No. 27) -- Last year Molton was one of the top true freshman cornerbacks nationally as a starter for the Cougars while Pippins was a regular starter as a junior. They're not big corners, both weighing 175 pounds at 5-foot-10, and they're still developing, especially Molton. He's second on the team in tackles and a big part of that is he's been targeted by opponents. He has just three passes defended and no interceptions. Beating him with physicality at the line of scrimmage is important and ASU can block these players at the line of scrimmage. 

ASU Offense Against Washington State Defense

The Cougars have been good against the run and not effective against the pass, similar to ASU. Washington State plays very relaxed coverage on the corners and that presents opportunities for short throws to the outside receives on hitches, curls and comebacks, and especially the bubble screen run-pass option concepts favored by ASU coordinator Chip Lindsey. These plays could especially be a factor in this game because the Cougars are smaller at the cornerback position and ASU has a blocking advantage athletically. 

The Cougars aren't athletic at the linebacker level and that may present opportunities for senior receiver Tim White to be a volume target in this game, and for ASU's running backs and tight ends to be more factors in the passing game. It's something the Sun Devils haven't been able to incorporate enough of this year.

This probably won't be a team ASU is able to pump the ball down the field due to its coverage and blitz approach, but there is soft enough coverage that the slants and hitch concepts to outside receivers should be available. Sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins is going to have to be content to take what's given and use extended drives to score points. After a quiet few weeks, we could see freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry get more targets and play more of a role in this game. 

It looks like the type of opponent where once again Lindsey will likely look to spread the ball around laterally in the passing game to the perimeter in order to create more opportunities to subsequently run the football. Early down success is essential for ASU in this game. The team has not been good on first downs in recent weeks and that has to change today. 

This can't be a game-plan with hardly any low percentage passes on first or second downs. That was a disaster for ASU last week. The completion percentage has to come up significantly and the run game has to be more productive as well.

Prediction

ASU's injuries continue to be an anchor holding the team back. Wilkins' mobility is important because the keeper threat on the run-pass option is necessary to keep defenses honest and it wasn't there last week. Also, Wilkins doesn't have enough comfort in the pocket when his scrambling ability isn't there due to the ankle injury. There should be more opportunities in this game on quicker throws and the Sun Devils must capitalize on it. Defensively, not having linebacker Christian Sam is a big factor in this game, and a limited sophomore safety Armand Perry is also challenging. ASU has done very well at home in the Todd Graham area and also tended to bounce back after losses with wins the following week. It may be too much to ask this game against the Cougars given some of the injuries and how the match-ups are impacted, but nothing would surprise. My pick is Washington State 31-27. 


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