Washington State Preview

Washington State QB Jeff Tuel

On paper, if ASU was looking for a contest to bounce back from a four-game skid, then a home date with a struggling Washington State team (2-8, 0-7 Pac-12) is exactly what the doctor ordered. Then again, despite their record the Cougars at times have proven to be a formidable opponent with a very potent passing offense. How will the Sun Devils fair in their last home games of the 2012 season?

DevilsDigest's Joe Healey examines ASU's next opponent.

Offensive Preview

At quarterback, WSU has seen split action from Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday. Both have appeared in eight games on the year, with Halliday boasting the statistical edge with 1,701 passing yards and 14 touchdowns to Tuel's 1,674 yards and eight scores.

An Achilles Heel to the Cougar offense has been the quarterbacks' lack of general ball control, as Halliday and Tuel have combined for 17 interceptions, worst in the Pac-12 and only two spots from the highest total at the FBS level.

Tuel has the experience edge and is expected to start against ASU, but no Sun Devil fan can forget Halliday's 494-yard performance in place of Tuel last year in WSU's 37-27 upset over ASU in Pullman last year.

The running back position is barely even worth the effort to type about for Washington State as the Cougars have one of the lowest performing rushing attacks in recent Pac-12/10 memory. Averaging just below 33 yards per game—worst in the nation—the Cougars average only 1.6 yards per clip on about 21 carries per game with only three total rushing touchdowns. Drastically impacting this total, however, is the fact that WSU's decimated offensive line also ranks dead last among FBS level teams with 46 sacks allowed and 112th in tackles for loss allowed. In all, Washington State has lost more yards (364) than it has gained (329) on the year.

The "leaders" in the run game for WSU are Teondray Caldwell and Carl Winston, with Caldwell gaining 249 yards on 50 carries—a respectable 5.0-yard average—and Winston chipping in 214 yards on 66 carries with two of the team's three rushing touchdowns.

As can be expected of Leach's teams, Washington State has one of the nation's most prolific passing attacks as the Cougars rank atop the Pac-12 and sixth in the nation with a team average of 337.5 passing yards per game.

The biggest area of concern on the offense and the team as a whole is what impact will be felt this weekend with the recent departure of All-America wide receiver Marquess Wilson, who made major waves on a national level when he accused Leach and his staff of physical and other forms of abuse.

Though the Wilson-Leach relationship was tumultuous pretty much the entire time since Leach's arrival, Wilson still performed well on the field as he left as the team's season leader in all major receiving categories with 52 receptions for 813 yards and five touchdowns.

In Wilson's absence, players such as Brett Bartolone, Gabe Marks and most recently, Dominique Williams, have been called upon to adopt greater roles in the pass game.

With Wilson now off the roster, Bartolone leads WSU with 46 receptions, while Marks, a standout true freshman, leads the team with 528 receiving yards. Bartolone is also tied with Isiah Myers with a team-high four touchdown receptions.

Bobby Ratliff, Kristoff Williams, Gino Simone and Andre Lintz are also featured in the pass game, as are running backs such as Marcus Mason, Carl Winston and Teondray Caldwell, as the trio has combined for 35 receptions.

Aside from being ill-equipped from a talent and depth perspective, the Cougars have suffered a seemingly endless list of injuries, team departures and development issues along the offensive line, causing WSU's blocking to be in the conversation with the nation's poorest units.

The starting lineup consists of Jake Rodgers at left tackle, John Fullington at left guard, Elliot Bosch at center, Matt Goetz at right guard and Wade Jacobson at right tackle.

Though Bosch has started all 10 games at center, the remainder of the line has been playing musical chairs virtually all year long. Fullington has started two games at left tackle and eight at left guard, Rodgers has started six at right guard, two at right tackle, one at left guard and one at left tackle and Jacobson has started seven games at right tackle and one at left guard.

Depth along the Cougar offensive line is basically non-existent as starting guard John Fullington is slated as the backup left tackle, Zach Brevick is the top reserve at both center and right guard, true freshman and Arizona native Denzell Dotson—a player WSU is redshirting and refuses to force into duty—is the second-team left guard and former defensive end Adam Coerper is the second right tackle.

WSU Offense in a Nutshell

There are one dimensional offenses and then, man, there are one dimensional offenses. True to his reputation from his time at Texas Tech, Mike Leach scoffs at the notion of running the football, as the Cougars are dead last among 124 FBS teams with a putrid 32.9 yards per game average.

To put things in perspective, last week against Colorado, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey had 37 more net rushing yards and two more rushing touchdowns than WSU has had all season through 10 games.

However, ASU will have to limit its recent penchant for allowing outstanding rushing performances from backup running backs as reserves such as Curtis McNeal for USC and Terron Ward for Oregon State burned the Devils for 150-plus rushing yards the past two weeks.

Surprisingly, though the Cougars have been among the nation's leaders in the pass game all year, the scoreboards haven't reflected much improvement as WSU is 103rd in the nation and 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (20.7 ppg.).

ASU can be expected to bring severe pressure on defense, so Washington State's primary hope lies in a superhuman performance by its offensive line to buy the quarterbacks enough time to find holes in the Sun Devil secondary.

Defensive Preview

The Cougar defense has shown strengths and weaknesses all year long, creating wide ranges of game outcomes such as nail biters against teams such as Stanford and Oregon State and blowouts such as the WSU's loss to Utah.

WSU's defensive front has performed admirably all year, ranking 11th in the nation in tackles for loss with 75.0 and 17th in the nation with 28.0 sacks.

The absolute star of the Cougar defense is Travis Long, a viable candidate for First-Team All-Pac-12 honors. Moved from defensive end to the BUCK linebacker position, Long has totaled team-highs of 13.0 TFLs and 9.0 sacks as part of his 58 total tackles. The BUCK position is similar to ASU's "Devil" linebacker and Long has benefitted from the switch in ways similar to the Sun Devils' Carl Bradford.

At linebacker, Long is joined by Cyrus Coen at SAM, Darryl Monroe at MIKE and Justin Sagote at WILL.

Monroe ranks second on the team in both tackles (65) and TFLs (8.5), while Sagote has chipped in 53 tackles and Coen 48.

Chester Su'a (30 tackles) and Eric Oertel (29 tackles) have been the Cougars' top reserve linebackers.

Up front, WSU employs a three-man line with nose tackle Ioane Gauta between Xavier Cooper and Matthew Bock. Cooper has the greatest statistical total of the three with 27 tackles including 7.5 for loss. Gauta has totaled 23 tackles and Bock 17.

The determining factor toward WSU's close and distant losses has been the play of its secondary, which ranks 102nd in the nation in pass defense but has stepped up its play in some games which has allowed WSU to compete closely with some talented teams.

Daniel Simmons and Anthony Carpenter are listed as the starters at cornerback with Nolan Washington and Damante Horton behind them. Carpenter has totaled 34 tackles and one interception and Simmons has posted 29 tackles.

Talented Deone Bucannon starts at strong safety with Taylor Taliulu behind him with Casey Locker and Tyree Toomer compete for time at free safety.

Bucannon likely will garner all-league honors as he leads WSU with 78 tackles and four interceptions, while Locker has totaled 51 stops.

WSU Defense in a Nutshell

Washington State will use a philosophy not too different from what can be expected from ASU as the Cougars hope that their excellent front seven can carry enough of the load to cover the whole defense.

Long and company can make life very difficult for Taylor Kelly, a player coming off two of the most traumatizing games he's had at ASU as Oregon State and USC both made livings out of pressuring the Sun Devil passer.

If the Cougars can consistently penetrate through the Sun Devil line, WSU can gain momentum and field position and look to its pass offense to cash in on the scoreboard. However, if Kelly is given enough time to thrown and/or gain yards outside the pocket ASU can use a fast offensive pace to keep the Cougar secondary on its heels.

Special Teams Preview

Kicker Andrew Furney has been up-and-down this year; making 11-of-17 attempts (64.7%). Furney connected on a 60-yarder earlier this season against Eastern Washington but has missed four of his past five attempts including two that were blocked against UCLA last week.

Punter Mike Bowlin averages 42.1 yards in 46 attempts and also kicks off for the Cougars.

Teondray Caldwell is the team's primary kick returner with a 26.1-yard average on 23 returns. Kristoff Williams, Marcus Mason, Brett Bartolone and Carl Winston have seen action on kickoff returns as well.

Leon Brooks averages 10.6 yards on seven punt returns while Bartolone has backed him up for limited duty this year.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that this game carries great magnitude for both teams. ASU can snap a four-game losing skid, gain bowl eligibility and send the seniors out with a win—all while preventing a catastrophic meltdown that a second straight loss to the Cougars would create.

For Washington State, a win would show team unity past the Marquess Wilson Saga and create momentum heading into the Apple Cup and beyond.

This game is squarely on the coaching staff in that Coach Graham and his colleagues to ensure that the team is in the right mind set and executes to the best of its ability. Though the four-game drought has been frustrating, the team has continued to fight each week, a trait that should prove valuable against an under-skilled opponent such as Washington State.

ASU has a distinct advantage with its defensive attack against Washington State's offensive protection and if the Devils can prevent Taylor Kelly from being constantly harassed ASU should be able to gain stable control at an early point.

Keys to a Sun Devil Victory

Keep Kelly Controlled

WSU does an above average job of getting to opposing quarterbacks and if last week's game at USC is any indicator, Sun Devil QB Taylor Kelly can be forced into costly mistakes if his protection consistently breaks down. The week before that, Oregon State's backfield pressure was a significant factor in limiting ASU's offensive options.

However, though the Cougars have done a commendable job in pressuring quarterbacks, Washington State has nowhere near the level of athletes USC and OSU do in their respective front sevens, so the comparisons between the games may very well be and "apples and oranges" situation. One would imagine that intermediate targets such as Marion Grice, D.J. Foster and Chris Coyle will be able to find pockets to work with against the Cougars.

Regardless, Washington State has competed mightily with some upper-tier Pac-12 competitors such as Oregon State and Stanford, so the pieces are in place for the Cougars to stymie their opponents. ASU's offensive line will absolutely have to put forth a better effort than has been seen of late and provide Kelly time to show the level of efficiency he displayed in the first half of the season.

With Kelly coming off a career-worst effort at USC, in this game he can either stop the bleeding or widen the wound.

Occupy WSU Backfield

The Cougar offensive line has performed as poorly as any in the country and doesn't even have enough valid warm bodies to fill a two-deep on the current depth chart. Though it may be a "chicken-and-egg" situation, WSU is entirely unable to keep defenses honest as the Cougars can't even fake their way to a viable run game.

Despite struggles elsewhere through the current four-game skid, ASU has remained highly capable of disrupting quarterbacks and pressed Matt Barkley to a subpar game a week ago. Will Sutton is campaigning for a Pac-12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year Award, while Carl Bradford had the game of his life at USC last week. Throw in an emotionally driven Brandon Magee making his farewell performance in Sun Devil Stadium and others such as Junior Onyeali, Chris Young, Jaxon Hood and Davon Coleman and you have a delicious recipe to stuff the bellies of Sun Devil fans the weekend before Thanksgiving.

ASU's abilities, combined with the motivation of senior day and the prospect of getting back in the win column and gaining bowl eligibility should make the Sun Devils capable of pressing Tuel and/or Halliday into mistakes that can turn the tide in favor of the home team.

Start Strong and Stay Strong

Oddly, through ASU's four-game losing streak the Sun Devils have scored first in each game. If that trend continues against the Cougars, the Sun Devils must improve their midgame reactions and adaptations and not allow the opponent to quickly play catch-up. In each of the past two games, ASU took early leads which were minimized to halftime ties and ultimately both Oregon State and USC made second half adjustments to cruise to comfortable wins.

Don't Look Back, Don't Look Forward

Focus will be a huge factor this weekend; ASU can't afford to worry about four straight losses, can't overlook Washington State toward Arizona and can't assume the Cougars are in shambles because of their string of losses, disappointing overall season and recent drama due to the departure of Marquess Wilson.

This could be perhaps the most important game against a two-win team that ASU's played this late in the season in quite some time as the difference between a win and a loss in this contest is immeasurable. Not only can ASU attain bowl eligibility and gain some momentum heading to Tucson next week, the Devils can avoid a catastrophic nuclear meltdown among an already suspicious fan base.

Due to the fact that so much is on the line, it is unfathomable to consider that Coach Graham and his staff will not extract the absolute best from every player on the team, especially the seniors such as Brandon Magee, Cameron Marshall, Keelan Johnson, Deveron Carr and others who will be playing for the last time in Sun Devil Stadium.

Familiar Faces

ASU assistant Chris Ball coached at Washington State from 2000-02 and again from 2008-11.

ASU assistant Bob Connelly coached at Washington State from 2001-02.

WSU OL Denzell Dotson (Glendale Cactus HS) is an Arizona native.

ASU TE Alex Bykovskiy (Decatur HS), DL C.J. Ryan (Seattle Prep) and LB Chris Young (Auburn Senior HS) are all Washington natives.

ASU RB Terrell Davis was verbally committed to WSU last year before signing with the Sun Devils.

WSU RB Phillip Brandt attended the College of the Sequoias, as did ASU LB Kipeli Koniseti.

WSU DT Steven Hoffart attended Butte College, as did ASU WR Rashad Ross.

WSU DE Darryl Paulo attended Sacramento (Calif.) Grant High School, as did ASU LB Kipeli Koniseti.

WSU OL Niu Sale was verbally committed to ASU last year before signing with the Cougars.

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