The Early Glimpse: Cougars vs. Sun Devils should be an offensive showcase

IT WASN'T THE stirring come-from-behind win over Oregon. Or the victory over lifeless Oregon State. Nor even the road triumph at Arizona, a place Washington State has thrived in recent years. No, what convinced me that Washington State belongs among the Pac-12's upper crust is actually a loss, the 30-28 defeat to Stanford last Saturday.

It was that game where it became evident the Cougars can play real defense.

We all know the Cougars are going to produce offense under Mike Leach. Always have, always will. It's Leach's thing. But offense alone isn't going to win games. And with Leach, I was never certain how much he's willing to invest in defense.

The move to hire DC Alex Grinch, and keep d-line Joe Salave'a on the staff after Washington and USC tried to hire him away (see link below) is proving that Leach is all-in with defense. The Cougars are thriving on that side of the ball, so much so that I could argue that defense might be the team's strength, or at least the equal to the offense. Couple a good defense with Leach's offense, and it's practically a given that you have a winning formula.

Stanford's offense in Pac-12 play was no joke. The Cardinal were housing opposing defenses with an attack that put teams to sleep with long drives and a punishing running game. Outside of a smart halftime adjustment which led to Kevin Hogan running wild during the second half, there was none of that against Washington State. The Cougars held Stanford to 312 yards, with 112 coming from the unexpected production of Hogan's legs.

This is a defensive performance that could repeat itself several times down the stretch as the Cougars face Arizona State, UCLA, Colorado and Washington. Arizona State will be a handful to defend, but WSU's defense could easily shine in the final three games against teams with freshmen quarterbacks or suspect offenses.

About Arizona State: Welcome to the Pac-12's leading enigma, as the Cougars may find out Saturday when they face the Sun Devils (12:30 p.m., Martin Stadium, Fox Sports 1; Cougars by 2 1-2).

From a talent standpoint, Arizona State (4-4, 2-3) is upper crust. The Sun Devils were among the preseason favorites in the Pac-12 South and No. 15 in the preseason AP poll. But from the get-go, starting with a 38-17 season-opening loss to Texas A&M, it's been impossible to figure out ASU.

USC destroys Arizona State 42-14 in Tempe, so you think, OK, these guys aren't good. Then the next week, the Sun Devils hit the road and dominate then No. 7 UCLA 38-23. They back it up with a 48-23 beatdown of Colorado. OK, they're good again, only to manage 15 rushing yards in a 34-18 loss at Utah.

But the head-scratcher of them all? How about Arizona State piling up 742 offensive yards and losing in overtime to Oregon, a game the Sun Devils should have won by three or four touchdowns and which featured some ASU playcalling in the fourth quarter and overtime that had Sun Devil fans in cycberspaced incensed.

Anything is possible come Saturday at Washington State. But here's what I expect: if Washington State comes to play, and gives a similar defensive effort as it did with Stanford, the Cougars will win, if only because the Sun Devils will find a way to lose.

The most fascinating match-up Saturday is Arizona State's blitz-happy defense against the Cougar offense. Arizona State rushes at least one extra defender at the quarterback on more than half of its plays. If Luke Falk can quickly locate receiver like Dom Williams (pictured above) the Cougars could find themselves sitting on a lot of big plays. If not, Falk might not make it to halftime, as ASU leads the Pac-12 with 29 sacks.

The ASU defenders who could create havoc in Washington State's backfield are linebackers Salamo Fiso (16 tackles for loss), Antonio Longino (10 tackles for loss) and D.J. Calhoun (4.5 sacks) and former Cougar walk on Jordan Simone (four sacks). The Sun Devils have eight players with at least four tackles for loss this season.

The Sun Devils have only 10 takeaways, led by three picks from safety Kareem Orr.

Offensively, Arizona State has good balance. The Sun Devils' running game is producing about 180 yards per game, while the passing attack is hitting at about 280 yards a game. It's hard for an opposing defense to load up on one particular aspect of ASU's offense, although focusing on the backs is good place to start.

Demario Richard leads the Sun Devils with 664 rushing yards, including a 135-yard performance against Oregon. Also to watch among the backs are Kalen Ballage (127 yards vs. Oregon), and D.J. Foster, who leads ASU in receiving with 38 catches for 365 yards. As for wideouts, Devin Lucien and Tim White each have 31 receptions, with White catching six touchdown passes.

Arizona State has a two-year starting quarterback in senior Mike Bercovici, who threw for a seaosn-high 398 yards against Oregon. Bercovici has completed 192 of 326 passes for 2,244 yards and 19 touchdowns, with seven picks, this season.

The series: In 2014, Arizona State turned five turnovers into touchdowns and Foster ran for three scores in a 52-31 win over Washington State. It was only Falk's second career start at quarterback, and he threw for 601 yards, but was intercepted four times and sacked six times. The Cougars led 24-21 at halftime, and trailed 28-24 after three before yielding 24 fourth-quarter points.

Arizona State leads the overall series 26-13-2. It's been a one-sided series of late, with ASU winning 10 of the past 11 games -- the lone WSU win came in 2011.

Familiar faces: The lone Sun Devil player with Evergreen State ties is a familiar face to Washington State: Simone. The brother of former WSU wideout Gino Simone, he spent one year as a walk on at WSU (2011) before transferring to Arizona State, where he received a scholarship in 2014 and has been a defensive star the past two seasons. One ASU coach with Cougar ties is safeties coach Chris Ball, who had two stints in Pullman. He was a defensive backs coach from 2000-02, and safeties/co-defensive coordinator (2008-11).

NOTABLE NOTES

  • The Cougars are averaging 407.4 passing yards per game, highest in the Pac-12 by 70 yards over No. 2 California. WSU is No. 2 in the Pac-12 in pass defense, yielding 205.4 yards per game.

  • Washington State is last in the Pac-12 in net punting (30.7 yards) and kickoff coverage (34.8 yards).

RELATED STORY: SALAVE'A TURNED DOWN UW, USC JOB OFFERS

Read Nick Daschel’s occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel


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