Welcome back Koetter

SURE, THE RUN for the Roses makes a huge stop in Pullman this weekend when the No. 8 Cougars take on the No. 16 Sun Devils. But perhaps more interesting to some than the game itself is the subplot.

Namely, whether second-year ASU head coach Dirk Koetter will pull another trick from his bag of bad manners.

Koetter's last two trips to the Palouse, as head man at Boise State, found him talking terse. First, in 1999, there was a little hissy-fit because Mike Price --- one of the truly nice guys in college ball --- had the temerity before the game to congratulate Bronc QB Bart Hendricks on his fine career. Then in 2000, when the Cougs pulled out a squeaker, Koetter moaned loud and long that the best team had lost.

And you just have to think he's still bothered by the fumble that Raonall Smith returned to paydirt in Tempe a year ago --- Koetter's first at ASU --- en route to the Cougars' ninth victory of the season. Dirk & Co. thought Andrew Walter's knee was down when the ball came out. The officials thought otherwise.

Adding fuel to Koetter's image as Mr. Personality is what he did to Stanford earlier this year. The Sun Devils blew the Card out early but Koetter nonetheless mandated a gratuitious fourth-quater-bombing that upped his team's tally to 65 points.

A regular Mr. Scrooge, right?

Well, maybe not.

If you turned an ear to Koetter's press conference on Monday, you'd have thought he was running for public office. He was as politically correct and respectful of the Cougars as you could imagine.

Noting that WSU's victory last week at Arizona clinched back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in Mike Price's tenure in Pullman, Koetter said, "That was surprising to me because when I think about Washington State, I think of them as winning team. They are 17-3 out of their last 20 games, and there are only two other teams in the country that are better than that, Miami and Oklahoma."

Whoa, Nellie!

That's hardly the work of the horse's rear end that tends to be portrayed in the ol' internet gin mills.

And he gets even more charming.

"Obviously, Washington State is a great team," said Koetter. "They have a great quarterback, Jason Gesser, who is the least sacked quarterback in the league. He gets the ball to his receivers, and he can scramble all over the place. They have great wide receivers. They have good speed on defense."

It's true. Koetter is talking like a charmer these days. And well he should. Predicted by many to finish ninth in the conference, the Devils are 7-2 overall and 4-0 in conference play. Were it not for four errant field goal tries against North Carolina, the Devils would be riding an eight-game winning streak into Pullman. There only other loss was in the opener at Nebraska.

Koetter, criticized at times a year ago for running an unconventional 4-2-5 defense, has stuck with it and the Devils now lead the Pac in sacks with 41. Junior DE Terrell Suggs is like a man among boys, leading the nation with 17 1/2 of those sacks. His play against Washington last week was nothing less than incredible.

On offense, sophomore QB Walter has been a passing machine. What's more, he connects any way he needs, going deep often but then shooting Washington to pieces with underneath tosses a week ago. His efficiency rating of 153.28 is the best in the Pac-10. The Devils are averaging more than 35 points a game -- second in the conference, just ahead of WSU at 33.4.

Walter's favorite target is Shaun McDonald. His 991 receiving yards leads the Pac-10 and his 58 catches are second most. A year ago he scorched the Cougars for 169 receiving yards.

SPEAKING OF GAUDY STATS, look for Gesser to set two school records in Saturday's game. He needs just 228 passing yards to supplant Jack Thompson as WSU's career passing leader. And he needs but one TD pass to move into sole possession of that career mark. He and Ryan Leaf are currently tied at 59.

Gesser already has another impressive record to his credit: Most wins by a starting Cougar quarterback. He's 21-9. Second on the list is Leaf at 15-9.

THE LINE: Cougars by 7 1/2

TV: Live regional broadcast on ABC. Kickoff at 12:30 PT

After Gesser left the game midway through the third quarter with bruised ribs and dizziness, the Cougs got it done unconventionally. First, Raonall Smith scooped up an Andrew Walter fumble, returned it 27 yards for a TD and then watched as tortillas rained down from fans who thought Walter was down before the ball came out. In the fourth quarter, Cougar receiver Collin Henderson fired a 21-yard scoring strike to running back Dave Minnich to break things open. The Cougars won 28-16, extending their record to 9-1. The statistical star of the day was receiver Jerome Riley (6 catches, 158 yards, 2 TDs).

WSU leads the Pac-10 in total offense and is second in passing offense and pass efficiency. The Cougs are fourth in scoring offense, pass efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense and punt returns.

ASU's Terrell Suggs is the Pac-10's undisputed master of the sack, but the Cougars have four mighty fine sacksters as well ---three of them juniors. All four rank among WSU's career leaders in sacks: Isaac Brown, fifth overall with 17; D.D. Achonolu eighth with 13, Rien Long 11th with 11; and senior Fred Shavies 13th with nine.

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