Saturday’s showdown in the desert had its crimson highs, such as when Gabe Marks finally saw man to man coverage for a 52-yard TD. And there were lows, where WSU's field goal unit missed an extra point -- it became a one possession game when it should have been a two score lead. But let's start at the beginning.
First Quarter Blues
Coming out of the desert at 5-2 and 4-0 in Pac-12 play is no small feat, one the Cougar Nation should celebrate. But do not overlook what this game exposed, as again the Cougs came out flat and again were forced to quickly playing catch-up.
On the first drive of the game Arizona State marched the ball down the field and hurdled their way into the end zone on a QB keeper. It was a drive the Cougar D had a chance to stop the Sun Devils more than a few times, including the TD run.
Meanwhile, the Washington State offense came away with only one first down in its first three drives.
The Sun Devils came out with something to prove after the embarrassment against Colorado and had it not been for an injury to the Devil’s QB Wilkins, I don’t know that the momentum would have swung to the Cougs when it did.
Not so hot routes
One stat every Washington State was talking about was that the Sun Devils got to QB Luke Falk seven times. Seven sacks. This after the Cougar offensive line had protected so well and had even begun to receive national notice. Yes, having Cody O'Connell injured in the second quarter didn't help but it was a systemic issue on the line, it wasn't just one guy. And the o-line wasn't the only issue
The majority of the pressure was due to two things: not understanding who the unaccounted for man was in the protection, and where to go with the ‘hot’ route. A couple quick examples:
- First quarter, third-and-13. The Cougs line up in an empty backfield. With six ASU defenders on the LOS, center Riley Sorenson sends the MIKE point left, directing the o-line to slide towards this player in protection. When the Sun Devil defense sees the Cougar line slide left, the unaccounted for man comes off the right edge. This is where Falk and one of the WSU receivers should be on the same page either for a quick slant or for a takeoff route. The best way to slow down pressure is to beat it, and a way to beat it is to take advantage of the one on one coverage pressure demands.
- First quarter, third-and-seven. The Sun Devils bring pressure to Falk’s left -- RB James Williams identifies his responsibility and scans over to pick up the linebacker. ASU LB DJ Calhoun comes downhill and upon seeing his man coverage responsibility block, he ‘green dogs’ up for the sack. Falk must understand once there is one more than protection can pick up, and he must get rid of the ball in that situation.
All game, I felt Falk was holding the ball too long given what ASU was doing on D and how many ASU was sending. And just look at what happens when he is able to dump the ball down to one of the Cougar RB’s. In the second quarter a simple dump down to Gerard Wicks turns into 18 yards after he makes a defender miss.
In the fourth quarter, the Sun Devil defense backed up in a cover 2 defense and Falk completed a simple pass to Jamal Morrow that covered all of two yards in the air. Morrow then made three ASU players miss, a dazzling run after the catch for 12 yards and a first down.
Protecting the quarterback is a priority but the quarterback protecting himself must also become a habit. Falk has to depend on his playmakers in cases like this and just get the ball out of his hands, and into to theirs.
Where you running?
In a game where Washington State running backs had only seven carries, it is hard to say the run game made an impact -- but I loved where three of these run calls came in the course of the ASU game.
- Opening play: Set the tone and let the big guys up front get the first pop of the game in with some aggression.
- Fourth-and-two, opening drive of second half: Falk audibles to a dive right up the middle. Some would say an easy call when the Sun Devils box was only 5 guys but to diagnose, make the call, and execute for a big play was an impact.
- First and goal, third quarter: With only one other carry in the game to that point, Wicks certainly was hungry. Following Eduardo Middleton on a quick guard pull led Wicks into the wall of defense, but then he went to work. Turning his legs like pistons Wicks pushed the 1,000-pound pile over the line for the TD. A Cougar statement to open the second-half scoring on the first WSU drive coming out of the locker room.
It is not a coincidence that a the first game that saw the Cougs truly depart form the run game, is the same game where Falk took the most punishment. Going forward, it is my belief that Washington State must continue to emphasize the run and keep defenses, and blitzers, honest.
Cougar D was two plays from greatness
After the first drive, the defense settled into the smash mouth stoppers WSU fans have grown to expect. Two ‘trick plays’ limited the Wazzu D to a very good performance, rather than a great one.
- The Sparky formation (or the Wildcat for the rest of the nation) found success on a power run right. I think this was more an assignment error than anything else because four Cougar defenders were lined up strong and only one was left to guard the backside. ASU blocking down and pulling for the linebacker opened a huge hole on a 52-yard TD run. Take this one play away and the Pac-12 leading rush defense did their job all night and held the Sun Devils to under 3 yards per attempt. But of course, you can't take it away.
- Due to QB health, ASU was forced to use some auxiliary options, and it included WR/QB Jack Smith throwing a reverse pass for a 40-yard bomb. Without this trickery, the Sun Devils saw little success throwing the ball, having passed for 167 hashes on the night.
All told, and this wasn't getting enough play after the game, WSU's defense held ASU to 280 yards of total offense.
Atta Boy: DE Daniel Ekuale
Ekuale came up and secured a missed sack by Hercules Mata’afa, supplying one of only two for the Cougs on the night.
On the play, Ekuale swam the ASU center, sniffed out a reverse, and was able to chase down the QB. Fun to watch.
Play of Game: Robert Taylor's "Call me"
Washington State was looking for an offensive spark in the second quarter. They got one from kickoff return man and safety Taylor with the Cougs down 14-3.
From what I could see on TV, the return scheme was set up as a Middle Left with a ‘Bounce’ action. This is a counter to the traditional return, it's designed to get outside on the edge of the pursuit.
Having special teamer Alijah Lee secure his responsibility inside, Wicks bounced around the pin blocks and led up on the Sun Devils’ L1.
I can assure you Taylor's spin was not part of the design but it definitely added to the swag and it allowed him to bounce around and flank the ASU kickoff team. From here, Taylor trusted his speed and took the edge on two Devils who had an angle on him. Taylor's agility and nimbleness to tight rope the sideline, even after being pushed, was impressive.
The pride in starting a play on one goal line, and finishing on the other - well, I am not sure who Taylor was telling to ‘Call Me’ after the score but I assure you that if he keeps making plays like that his phone will ring and ring.
Stat of the Game: Time
The Cougars got the ball back with 4:36 left on the clock and never relinquished control. No, the game wasn’t perfect, even ugly at times, but five wins in a row couldn’t be prettier. No matter what was said before the game or after the game, Mike Leach had the final say -- an undefeated Pac-12 record.
This team is heading in a direction no one could have seen after the first two games, a pair of 3-point losses rife with play that pointed more to potential than game-winning execution. Now comes an always challenging trip to Corvallis and do not sleep on Oregon State. The Cougars will need to stay focused and not overlook the Beavs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jed Collins, 30, spent seven seasons in the NFL with eight teams, working his way from undrafted free agent and practice squad player to starting fullback for the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions. He retired after the 2015 season. From 2004-07 he was an all-everything standout at Washington State, where he played linebacker, fullback and tight end. “Jedzilla,” as Cougar fans affectionately dubbed him, earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors as a senior in 2007 after catching 52 Alex Brink passes for 512 yards. Today he is an associate with the Seattle-based wealth management firm Brighton Jones.