Saturday's matchup between Washington State and Arizona State is a critical one as it relates to both teams' Pac-12 aspirations. The Cougars (3-2, 0-2 Pac-12) can't afford another conference loss if they want any shot of winning the North division, while the Sun Devils (4-1, 1-1) are part of what has become a crowded South race.
This also is a matchup of contrasting styles as Mike Leach's Cougars and Herm Edwards' Sun Devils feature different approaches. Washington State is tops in the Pac-12 and tied for sixth nationally at 44.8 points per game. Arizona State is tied for second in the conference (with Utah) and tied for 11th in FBS in scoring defense at 14.4 points per game. So this is one of those what happens when a high-scoring defense goes up against a defense that doesn't yield an inch type of games. Of course, the Cougars' defense and Sun Devils' offense may have a say in how things turn out.
This game also is interesting because of what lies ahead for both teams. Washington State still has dates with Oregon, Cal, Stanford, and Washington on its schedule, while Arizona State heads to Salt Lake City next week before taking on UCLA and then USC, with a bye in between.
So it may only be mid-October, but both Leach and Edwards know how important this game could be to their teams' seasons. Don't be surprised if this ends up being one of the Pac-12's more exciting games of the year.
Washington State at Arizona State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 12 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Arizona State -1
When Arizona State Has the Ball
The key to Arizona State's offense is the continued development of true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels. His learning curve has been somewhat stunted by the inexperience around him up front, as the Sun Devils have a 17-year-old left tackle and freshman right guard along their offensive line. As a result, teams have been sending the house after Daniels while running back Eno Benjamin has had trouble finding open lanes. Arizona State has still managed to win four of its first five games but statistically, the Sun Devils rank 10th in the Pac-12 in total, scoring, and rushing offense, and are eighth in passing yards per game.
Washington State may be a lot of things, but a complicated defensive team is not one of them. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys resigned after the loss to Utah and Mike Leach has turned that side of the ball over to Roc Bellantoni and Darcel McBath. What they will do differently remains to be seen but considering the Cougars rank 105th in the country at 444.4 yards per game allowed, there's clearly plenty of room for improvement.
So can Arizona State take advantage of one of the Pac-12's more generous defenses? For that to happen, Benjamin needs to get going. After finishing fifth in FBS with 1,642 rushing yards last season, he's currently on pace for less than 950. The good news is he's coming off of a 100-yard game against a stout Cal defense. If Benjamin can force Washington State to focus on stopping the run that should give Daniels enough time to find Brandon Aiyuk and Frank Darby downfield. Both wide receivers have big-play ability as each is averaging at least 19 yards per catch. The Sun Devils also need to find a way to string some extended drives together, as that will limit the possessions the Cougars' offense gets.
When Washington State Has the Ball
There’s no denying the Cougars are a threat to score every time they have the ball. They are once again among the highest-scoring teams in the country (44.8 ppg), but they've already lost two games this season compared to two all of 2018. One of those losses came in a game in which they scored 63 points and led by 32 almost midway through the third quarter.
Anthony Gordon is doing his best Gardner Minshew impression this season, coming out of nowhere to lead the nation in passing (429.2 ypg), but don't overlook the running game led by Max Borghi. Even though he's averaging less than 10 carries a game, Borghi is eighth in the Pac-12 in rushing (75.2 ypg).
But all Mike Leach offenses start and end with the quarterback and Gordon is just his latest revelation. Besides prolific, Gordon has been accurate (72.0 percent) and he's thrown just six interceptions compared to his 22 touchdowns. He will be tested by an Arizona State defense that has given up just six touchdown passes in five games but it's also fair to say the Sun Devils have yet to face an offense like this. Playing on the road, Gordon may have to settle for minimal or moderate gains rather than going for the big play through the air, as any miscue will give momentum to the home team.
Arizona State would love to find a way to pressure Gordon and try to get the Cougars out of their rhythm but that's easier said than done given the quarterback's ability to move around the pocket and throw on the move combined with Washington's State preferred tempo. The Cougars may run the ball a little more than usual in an effort to wear down the Sun Devils' defense and milk the clock some.
Both Washington State and Arizona State are well-coached teams, even if they have different strengths and approaches. Tempo could be critical, especially early, as the Cougars like to pick up the pace while the Sun Devils are more methodical, especially given the inexperience at quarterback and along the offensive line. However, don't be surprised if this a game where Arizona State chooses to try and match Washington State in the pace department, a decision that leads to a much-needed offensive outburst as the Sun Devils win a close one at home.
Prediction: Arizona State 48, Washington State 42
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist. (Special thanks to Ralph Amsden (@ralphamsden) of ArizonaVarsity.com for his assistance.)