Despite Washington State's offensive line being ranked No. 2 in the country by Pro Football Focus entering the weekend, Arizona State was able to provide heavy pressure on WSU junior quarterback Luke Falk on Saturday.
During the week, ASU players said they saw film on teams that effectively generated pressure on Falk with three players. On Saturday, ASU consistency rushed four players and blitzed primarily on third downs.
ASU had seven sacks on the night, a season-high. Its previous high mark this season was its five-sack night against UCLA on Oct. 8. ASU junior Devil backer Koron Crump had three sacks, bringing his season total to 8.0. ASU junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun added an additional two sacks on Falk, bringing his season total to four.
“You got to be a greedy defense,” senior Bandit safety Marcus Ball said. “Defense wins ball games no doubt about that so going back to work, we aren’t going to hang our heads down after our loss. We are going to go back to work.”
In addition to a sack-heavy night, the Sun Devils also had 11 tackles for loss, another season-best after recording two 10 tackle-for-loss games -- their first against Northern Arizona on Sept. 3 and their second against UTSA on Sept. 16. Crump and Calhoun both had three tackles for loss against WSU.
With ASU losing starting quarterback Manny Wilkins after the team's second offensive series due to injury, there was "definitely a sense of urgency" from the Sun Devil defense to step up according to Ball.
“It was definitely a sense of urgency, trying to get to the quarterback," Ball said. "It was no surprise that we had sacks today. Everyone knew we were going to bring pressure. It was a sense of urgency trying to get to him.”
In addition to the sacks on Falk, ASU's defense held WSU's rushing attack to 19 attempts for minus-52 yards. Junior running back Jamal Morrow only had four carries for 17 yards on the night, junior running back Gerald Wicks added two carries for four yards and redshirt freshman running back James Williams added one carry for two yards.
“They loaded the box, gave different looks and different fronts," Falk said. "If the numbers aren’t right we aren’t going to do it. It’s a bad call. We are a pass heavy team, so why wouldn’t we do it (pass). If they want to load the box that’s what this offense is designed around is to throw the crap out of it. We kind of got back to our roots I guess. If the numbers are right we are going to run the ball. We have three great backs. I think they are the best coached position and the most well rounded position. Tonight there were some times where they were trying to take it away and we just had to throw it.”
Falk alone had 63 drop backs on the night, while WSU called seven true rushing plays. Of Falk's 10 rushing attempts, seven were ASU sacks and three were improvisational scrambles.
In total, WSU called passes on 90 percent of its plays.
Critical special teams play
On a season in which ASU's special teams play has emerged as one of its top strengths, the Sun Devils gave up a crucial special teams touchdown on a kickoff return late in the second quarter.
WSU safety Robert Taylor took one of the few non-touchback kickoffs from ASU senior kicker Zane Gonzalez 100 yards for the touchdown to cut ASU’s lead to 14-10 with 8:41 left in the second quarter.
“It was exciting because it has been since 2003 since we have had a kick-off return for a touchdown," WSU linebacker Issac Dotson said. "We tease him (Robert Taylor) because his Instagram name is Run It Back Rob” but he hasn’t “run it back yet”. Now we can finally call him that. It was exciting. It was an awesome play by him with great blocking. It was just a huge special team’s play that we really needed.”
On WSU's ensuing drive, wide receiver Tavares Martin caught a nine-yard touchdown catch give the Cougars its first lead of the game, moving them up 17-14 with 57 seconds left in the first half and the Cougars were rolling from there.
Taylor's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was the first by WSU since Sammy Moore did it in 2003 at Colorado. Taylor's return was WSU's third 100-yard kickoff return in program history. Its previous two were Bernard Jackson's against UCLA in 1971 and Anthony Prior's return in 1991 against USC.
“It goes by like a blur," Taylor said. "We had a good game plan going in with that kick return and when I see that green grass, I know that I just had to hit it. It was a blur, but a blessing too. This was the first one we had in about 13 years so we take great pride in that as a team.”
In addition to giving up a 100-yard touchdown return, ASU senior punter Matt Haack also struggled, with six punts for 251 yards on the night for an average of 41.8 yards per punt. Coming into the game, Haack was averaging 46.8 yards per punt. In the first quarter on Saturday, Haack had both a 39-yard punt and a 34-yard punt.
While ASU's special teams unit had a slight hitch in the game, it also had a bright spot, with ASU senior wide receiver Tim White returning a punt 70 yards for a touchdown with 11:18 left in the fourth quarter. ASU converted its ensuring two-point conversion try and cut the Cougars' lead down to 37-29.
White's punt return was ASU's first punt return since Jamal Miles took a punt back against Oregon State in November of 2012.
- Ball led the ASU defense with nine tackles, one sack and one tackle for loss.
- ASU freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry led the Sun Devils in receptions, with six catches for 76 yards.
- ASU safety Chad Adams started at field safety in place of injured sophomore safety Armand Perry. Adams began the season at bandit safety before JUCO transfer J'Marcus Rhodes and Ball traded off time at that position. Ball was the starting bandit safety on Saturday against WSU.