Arizona State and Washington are two teams in desperate need of two wins. Both sitting at 4-5, these final weeks will determine their postseason fates.
Washington hasn't missed bowl season since 2009, former head coach Steve Sarkisian's first year taking over from the disastrous 0-12 finish. Arizona State last missed the postseason in 2010.
Either team is capable of winning out to ensure a finish above .500; either could just as easily collapse to go 4-8. Saturday's meeting in Tempe, Arizona sets the tone for the crucial, final stretch ahead of two programs at a pivotal juncture.
Washington at Arizona State
Kickoff: 3 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Arizona State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Defense Setting the Tone
Though known for a high-scoring, up-tempo offense throughout head coach Todd Graham's tenure, the 2015 Sun Devils are at their best controlling the pace on the defensive side.
Arizona State holds opponents to just 19.25 points per game in wins. In losses, the Sun Devils allow a staggering 42.6 points per game.
Washington isn't typically going to put up 40-plus points. The Huskies have been up-and-down offensively, at best, enduring the growing pains of playing true freshman quarterback Jake Browning and an inexperienced offensive line.
However, the Huskies employ a stout defense that's particularly rugged in the front seven. Washington's strategy relies on grinding down the pace until its offense can break through with one or two big plays.
“Our defense played at a high level most of the season, so they feel pretty good about things,” Washington head coach Chris Petersen said.
The Huskies must ride the side of the ball with which they feel confident.
2. Establishing the Run
Washington freshman running back Myles Gaskin is settling in nicely as the Huskies' primary ball carrier. Since going for 134 yards against USC on Oct. 8, Gaskin's rushed for at least 93 yards in four of five games. He's also reached the end zone at least once in four of five outings over that same stretch.
Getting Gaskin going is critical for Washington to mount any kind of offensive attack, but that's easier said than done against Arizona State's No. 24-ranked run defense. The Sun Devils held five of their last six opponents under 100 yards rushing.
Arizona State faces a similar challenge. Sun Devil offensive coordinator Mike Norvell gives quarterback Mike Bercovici the green light to air it out, but Arizona State is most effective when functioning with a balance of run and pass.
Since sustaining an injury against Colorado and missing the Sun Devils' loss at Utah, running back Demario Richard returned to rip off 135 yards against Oregon and 111 against Washington State.
Establishing Richard as a threat early against a Washington defense holding opponents to just 3.3 yards per carry opens the field for Bercovici and reins in the pass rush. With 23 sacks, Washington is among the Pac-12's best pass-rushing teams.
3. Dawgs in the Desert
Washington hasn't won in the state of Arizona since 2006, going 0-7 in that time. The Huskies' last victory at Sun Devil Stadium came in 2001, a 33-31 decision.
Maybe it's the dry, desert air. Perhaps it's the trip; trekking to the Grand Canyon State is Washington's longest Pac-12 hike any season.
Whatever the cause, the Huskies struggle in Arizona.
Petersen called Washington's sub-.500 record frustrating, commensurate with the team's efforts. The Huskies lost three games by single digits, and had a pair of touchdowns called back last week in an 11-point loss to Utah.
Washington is a young team enduring foreseeable struggles. Arizona State's mirroring record is somewhat more difficult to parse, given the Sun Devils' lofty expectations entering the season.
On paper, Arizona State should overwhelm Washington. The Sun Devils' aggressive, blitzing defense can cause problems for Browning, and the multifaceted offense has the weapons to put Washington back on its heels. The question facing Arizona State isn't if it has the goods to blow past the Huskies and take a step toward bowl eligibility.
The issue is which Arizona State shows up.
Washington's visit comes at an opportune time. Arizona State has dropped three straight, though been competitive in each. This week, the Sun Devils should get over the hump with two chances to lock up a bowl bid in the final two weeks.