For the second straight season, Washington State has bounced back from a sluggish non-conference start and is tearing through Pac-12 play. The Cougars (4-2, 3-0 Pac-12) held off UCLA 27-21 for their fourth straight victory and stayed unbeaten in league play. With a favorable schedule still ahead, Washington State has a realistic shot at going undefeated until meeting up with Washington in the Apple Cup in its regular season finale.
The Cougars put their undefeated Pac-12 record on the line with a road trip to Tempe. Arizona State (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) started strong, but has faded over the last three weeks. The Sun Devils are still a tough customer in their home state, winning six straight home games dating back to a 61-55 triple overtime loss to Oregon last October.
Arizona State leads the all-time series 26-14-2. The Sun Devils have won 10 of the last 12 meetings with Washington State. The Cougars last won in Tempe in 2001. Washington State hasn't beat Arizona State in consecutive seasons since winning three straight from 2001-03.
Washington State at Arizona State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 22 at 10 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Washington State -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Luke Falk pick apart Arizona State's secondary?
Figuring out what to do with Falk will not be a new dilemma for Arizona State. Falk torched the Sun Devils early and often a season ago, throwing for 497 yards and five touchdowns to lead Washington State to victory. Everything is lining up for him to do it again this year.
Once again, Falk is making the air raid offense pack a punch. He ranks fifth nationally in passing yards per game (352.2), sixth in total passing yards (2,113) and second in completion percentage (71.5). Falk has thrown for more than 300 yards in four games and more than 400 yards twice this season. His top target, Gabe Marks, has piled up 337 yards and six touchdowns on 40 receptions.
That's bad news for Arizona State. The Sun Devils have struggled to defend against the pass all season. Arizona State ranks last among FBS teams in pass defense, allowing 384.4 yards per game through the air. The Sun Devils have given up 19 passing touchdowns in seven games and are allowing 8.9 yards per attempt.
2. Can Arizona State rediscover its running game?
Murphy's Law took control in Arizona State's backfield last weekend. Everything that could go wrong against Colorado went wrong for the Sun Devils. Running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage combined for just 73 rushing yards. With five sacks on quarterback Manny Wilkins factored into the mix, Arizona State totaled a season low 50 yards.
A strong running game helped Arizona State jump out to a 4-0 start. The Sun Devils averaged 236.5 yards on the ground in those four contests. In the last three games, however, their offense is producing just 68 rushing yards per game.
It's putting extra pressure on Wilkins, who is still trying to get back to 100 percent from an ankle injury, and the passing game. The results are not inspiring. Pass protection has been a major issue. Under constant pressure, Wilkins finished with 149 yards, one touchdown and an interception on 13-of-35 passing against Colorado.
3. Air and ground raid
Washington State has showcased less of a one-dimensional offense this season. The Cougars are mixing in an improved running attack to take some pressure away from Falk when it comes to moving the chains.
Through six games, Washington State has totaled 16 rushing touchdowns. That's the highest number for the Cougars since the 2005 team rushed for 20 scores. They are tied for 22nd nationally in that category.
Jamal Morrow is averaging 6.2 yards per carry for Washington State and has piled up 316 yards and four touchdowns on 51 carries. Gerard Wicks has chipped in 221 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. They are on pace to combine for more than 1,000 rushing yards — a rare statistic in head coach Mike Leach's air raid offense.
Arizona State exceeded expectations with a 4-0 start this season, but the Sun Devils have fallen back to Earth. Injuries at quarterback, poor blocking from the offensive line, a disappearing run game and a porous defense are all taking a heavy toll. Washington State is rolling after an 0-2 start and seems to have the bugs worked out on both sides of the ball. The Cougars offer a nightmarish test for Arizona State's defense and it's not one the Sun Devils are likely to pass.
Prediction: Washington State 38, Arizona State 31
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.