I’ll get to that in a moment but need to mention something about the slow start. A few weeks ago following the victory at Oregon, I talked about this team’s heightened ability to respond to adversity. With a brutally tough loss to Stanford last weekend, the slow start against ASU wasn’t entirely surprising. It seemed a letdown game was in the works.
Yet, as good teams do, the coaches made some adjustments and the players made some plays. Buried in a 14-point hole and with their backs against the wall – and with 17-0 or 21-0 looking like it was just a play away -- the Cougars answered with an inspiring performance in front of the home crowd.
And the end result on Saturday in Pullman could not have been sweeter for Cougar fans -- bowl eligible, with three games still to play.
Here are three changes WSU made on offense and defense to get back in the game and ultimately come away with a victory:
1. LINEBACKER PLAY
The first two drives for Arizona State felt like they would simply go up and down the field on the WSU defense all day. The Sun Devil running backs were consistently getting to the second level and the Cougar defenders were having a tough time tackling in space. Much of the ASU offense’s early success can be credited to lack of discipline by the Washington State linebackers.
Arizona State’s favorite play of the day had their play side tackle block down on the defensive end and the backside guard or fullback pull around to block the middle linebacker. In a perfect world the MIKE would take on the pulling guard, the backside linebacker would scrape across the formation and the safety would fill the lane to combine for a tackle near the line of scrimmage.
Unfortunately for WSU, the front side linebacker would either dive inside the pull or it was taking too long for the backside 'backer to scrape across -- which left the safety 1-on-1 in the hole with Sun Devil running backs.
Whether it was a sideline conversation or just better recognition on the field, the Cougar linebackers did an excellent job in making the adjustment to stop Arizona State’s best offensive scheme following the first two drives.
2. QUICK PASSING GAME
Luke Falk and the Washington State offense made a good adjustment after their first few series to utilize the quick passing game to neutralize the ASU defensive pressure.
Initially, it looked like the Cougars wanted to take advantage of the Sun Devil’s press man coverage by throwing downfield. However, after misfiring on the first three drives Falk found his comfort zone by hitting slants and quick stick outs.
The slant route by the outside receivers especially turned into a big hitter for Washington State in the second half.
Dom Williams and Gabe Marks are nearly impossible to press at the line of scrimmage over the course of the game - and Falk was so accurate with those throws on Saturday it allowed for big catch and runs.
The Arizona State defense is well known for their aggressive, blitzing nature and that's what WSU saw on Saturday. One way to combat that aggressiveness, as mentioned above, is to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand quickly.
Another is for the offense to create its own version of confusion among the defensive players with motion.
The Cougars utilized more motion following their first three series and it directly resulted in a number of big plays
The first came on the drive immediately following the huge fourth down stop by the defense in the first quarter. WSU motioned a receiver into a trips set and then sent the running back on a wheel route to the same side. By motioning to 3x1 and adding a fourth player to that side, it created confusion in the Sun Devil secondary - and that allowed Jamal Morrow to get wide open for a big play.
Later in the game we saw a similar instance where motioning to trips caused miscommunication by Arizona State. Here, Kyle Sweet popped open for a 36-yard catch-and-run.
The use of motion throughout the game severely neutralized the Sun Devil defense’s ability to get to Falk with pressure -- and to play effective man to man coverage.
THE BEST PART about this game to me was the players’ and coaches’ reaction to becoming bowl eligible.
Instead of being satisfied with getting a sixth win, every single Cougar is wanting more.
This is the sign of a team that has turned a corner.
Not only have they showed a resiliency to win tough conference games, they are not content with it.
Mike Leach’s ability to maintain an even keel through a tumultuous start to the season is paying off. The players in the locker room believe in each other and their coaches. With three games left to play WSU has a chance to really make this season special.
But obstacles remain. Ro begin with, Saturday night in the Rose Bowl is going to be yet another test to see if this Cougar football team is ready to handle the spotlight as a top tier Pac-12 program.
ABOUT ALEX BRINK: He authors this hugely popular weekly column during the season on Cougfan.com but once upon a time, Alex Brink was the starting quarterback at Washington State. And from 2004-2007, he threw for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in school history -- and the third-most yards in Pac-10 history. He was picked second-team all-Pac-10 twice and honorable mention once. Drafted in the seventh round by the Houston Texans in 2008, he spent a season on their practice squad before playing five years in the Canadian Football League: three campaigns with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2010-12) followed by two seasons in Montreal (2013-14). He is the quarterbacks coach at Lakeridge High in Lake Oswego, Ore., and does a weekly Pac-12 podcast. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10.