The surprise Cougars are one week removed from a heartbreaking loss to Stanford. Had Washington State won, it would have held first-place in the Pac-12 North. The Cougars must now bounce back to stay in the divisional hunt and secure bowl eligibility.
After losing its own heartbreaker, a triple-overtime decision to Oregon, Arizona State needs two wins in November to go bowling.
Yes, there's plenty on the line Saturday at Martin Stadium. But Washington State head coach Mike Leach upped the ante on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches call when asked about recent accusations of the Sun Devils stealing signs.
"You’ve got two-straight schools with a concern for it back-to-back," Leach said, in reference to Colorado and Oregon. The Ducks used curtains on the sideline to try hiding signals. "The conference probably ought to investigate it.”
Arizona State at Washington State
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Washington State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Arizona State's Commitment to the Run
The Sun Devils rolled with the run last week against Oregon, ripping off 344 yards on 55 carries. Running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage both surpassed 100 yards, and quarterback Mike Bercovici went for a career-high 58.
Yet, as often and as effectively as Arizona State ran, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell called two passes in the red zone on the Sun Devils' triple-overtime possession. The second was intercepted to seal an Oregon win.
Bercovici had a monster night passing, completing 32-of-53 for 398 yards and five touchdowns. However, Arizona State's record slipped to 1-4 when Bercovici threw 40 times or more.
Arizona State is opposite a Washington State run defense that ranks No. 106 nationally, which has given up 5.5 yards per carry or more in three of its last four games. The Cougars' struggles against the run give the Sun Devils a window on the ground, but Norvell's temptation to pass will be a storyline to follow.
2. Luke Falk Bouncing Back
Washington State quarterback Luke Falk's three lowest pass-completion outings went for 27, 35 and 35. Not coincidentally, those games were against Portland State, Cal and Stanford — the three teams to defeat Washington State.
Falk bounced back after the first two losses, throwing for four touchdowns and no interceptions against Rutgers, and five scores with no picks at Oregon. He also ran for a touchdown in the upset of the Ducks.
Washington State's most recent loss may be the most devastating of the three. The Cougars had Stanford on the ropes late in what would have been a landmark win for Leach. Falk had an opportunity to lead a game-winning drive, but was intercepted on a tough pass under duress.
The quarterback's response this week could shape the final month of Washington State's season — not to mention the makeup of Saturday's contest.
3. Special Teams Play
Arizona State and Washington State have suffered through some of the least consistent special teams play in the Pac-12 dating back to last season. The Sun Devils are coming off a loss in which placekicker Zane Gonzalez missed three field goals, and the kickoff coverage unit surrendered a 100-yard touchdown to Oregon's Charles Nelson.
Washington State has already given up two kickoff returns for scores this season, and this week is opposite one of the nation's most electrifying returners, Tim White.
Look for a big special teams play to have a monumental impact on Saturday's outcome.
Washington State's Cinderella story reached a turning point with the loss to Stanford. Reaching a bowl game is a nice comeback for the Cougars after last year's disappointing, 3-9 finish, but flirtation with a Pac-12 Championship Game berth late in the season has them seeking more.
Arizona State's in desperation mode after falling to .500 with the Oregon loss. The Sun Devils can either finish strong or fold. Past Arizona State teams were guilty of falling apart late in the season once adversity hit, but the program's had a much different M.O. under current head coach Todd Graham.
The Sun Devils should rally from the Oregon heartbreak to move one win closer to bowl eligibility on Saturday. Never mind signals; the only thing Arizona State is stealing is an upset win.