Even more remarkable than the obstacles hurdled by No. 8 ranked WSU during the past week was their convincing dispatch of No. 16 Arizona State today, 44-22; a dominating victory that gives the Cougs sole ownership of first place in the Pac-10.
Under the best of circumstances, this contest had the telltale signs of a genuine Pac-10 donnybrook. After all, this was a "winner takes all" (at least temporarily) match-up between the conference's two first place teams, both of whom happened to sport offenses noted for moving the sticks --- and the scoreboards.
But toss in a virus that hit twenty or so Cougar players and a locker room mugging that put one of the Pac's best cover men --- Jason David --- on the injured list and a starting linebacker in the doghouse, and you have the makings of a major derailment on the trek to Pasadena.
Not with this special band of Crimson Soldiers.
Adversity --- so often more damaging and divisive than a dropped pass or missed field goal --- seems to have super-glued this team together instead of wedging them apart. Suddenly, coach Mike Price's cornered jungle lion analogy seems for poetic than cliche.
"Guys stepped up and showed the character of our team," Cougar quarterback Jason Gesser said afterward.
Indeed they did. And if any of the eight Cougar victories thus far could truly be labeled a "team effort," it was this one. Especially on the side of the ball that needed it most: The defense.
Defensive tackle Rien Long tallied three of the eight Cougar sacks on ASU QB Andy Walter, serving notice that it was he and his defensive mates, not Suggs, who deserved the pre-game hype. The lanky Walter connected on 31 of 51 passes for 328 yards, but seemed rattled by the Crimson-hued harassers.
But big defensive plays weren't relegated to the pass rush. Jeremey Williams and Virgil Williams both issued molar-moving hits that caused Sun Devil fumbles in the first quarter. Karl Paymah played admirably in David's spot, tallying seven defensive stops. Linebacker Will Derting's bull-rush of Walter forced ASU to settle for a field goal with the Cougs up 17-0. Donnie Jackson pulled down a key interception following a potential momentum turning Cougar miscue that resulted in a safety in the third quarter. And twice WSU stopped the Sun Devils on fourth and goals; the second halt coming on a Jeremy Bohannon ankle tackle of a sneaking Walter. One play prior, safety Erik Coleman performed a textbook pass defense in the end zone.
The biggest defensive play, however, came with 35 tics left in the first half. That's when corner Marcus Trufant intercepted Walter, not only halting ASU's drive, but also giving Gesser enough time - - one play - - to hit Jerome Riley from 39-yards out and cushioning their halftime lead to 21 points.
"If you can play good defense in November, you have a good chance of going the distance," Price said.
Arizona State, who entered the contest ranked twelfth nationwide in scoring, did not manage to hit pay dirt against the Cougs until the final fifteen.
The Sun Devils had occasional success on the ground, yet finished with an abysmal 37-yards rushing on 32 carries, due in large part to the negative yardage generated by the Cougar sack attack.
ASU receiving threat Shaun McDonald, one of the premier Pac-10 wideouts, was held to just 78 yards on 7 catches.
OFF DAY ON OFFENSE?
Since when is a 44-point scoring day seen as an off day for the offense? When you're the WSU Cougars and your kicker, Drew Dunning, misses on two field goals, your QB, Gesser, throws two picks, and one of your best receivers, Devard Darling, drops two passes, including a sure touchdown toss from backup signal caller Matt Kegel.
That's not to say Gesser will look back at this day with anything but fondness. Aside from throwing 3 TD passes --- the first of two to Riley came on the first offensive play, the other to TE Troy Bienemann --- and 250 yards while completing 18 of 32; Gesser also eclipsed legendary Cougar QB Jack Thompson's school career passing yardage record of 7,818 yard set from 1975-78. Gesser now has 7,823 yards passing with four games remaining in his collegiate career.
Gesser also set the WSU record for career TD strikes with 62, moving him past Ryan Leaf who hurled 60 from 1995-97.
THE BLUE COLLAR BUNCH
They are the nameless behemoths lost in the trenches, yet championship teams are built around these steak eaters we call "offensive lineman." The Crimson and Gray brand of hosses punched in another solid effort today, especially in limiting the nation's sack leader, Suggs, to one drop of Gesser.
And while O-lineman don't usually show up on highlight films, there were at least two exceptions today at Martin Stadium: One being the massive hole they opened for running back Jermaine Green on a 13-yard jaunt to the end zone; the other a Derrick Roche snot-bubbling pancake of an ASU defender on a Riley sweep.
ON THE RUN
The WSU "running back by committee" scenario gets more palatable each week. Green sliced and diced his way to a second TD; John Tippins was his usual dependable self, carving out 73-yards on 12 carries, and Jonathan Smith had a key third and long catch and run, and excelled on kick returns.
But the most intriguing run of the day came courtesy of the gutsy play calling of assistant coach Kasey Dunn. On a fourth down play in WSU territory, Kyle Basler lined up in punt formation but instead ran the skin 16-yards for another Cougar first down.
THE RILEY FACTOR
Riley enjoyed another heaven sent performance against the Sun Devils, today. The senior snagged 8 passes for 131 yards and the two scores. He gained an additional 13 yards on a reverse. Last year, he caught 6 for 158 yards and two TD's.
Thanks to some timely upsets, ol' Wazzu should find themselves with a substantial jump from the No. 8 spot they held coming into the weekend. Three teams ranked higher than the Cougs --- Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, and Georgia --- fell today.
The Oregon Ducks --- 41-14 winners today over Stanford --- visit Martin Stadium next Saturday. The contest will be the ABC regional game of the week, with kick-off at 12:30 PM.
WSU: Riley 31-yd pass from Gesser (Dunning kick)
WSU: Bienemann 1-yd pass from Gesser (Dunning kick)
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