Washington State's offense, which features the Pac-10's second-leading passer, senior Alex Brink, and three of the top six receivers in the conference, is expected to provide the Arizona State defense its most significant challenge of the season when the Sun Devils (5-0) travel to Pullman to play the Cougars (2-3) in a 1 p.m. Saturday matchup that will be broadcast in High Definition to a national audience by Fox Sports Net.
The Cougars rank second in the league in passing yards, with 295.5 per game, and Brink has thrown 15 touchdowns against four interceptions.
ASU shut down Washington State's potent offense last season in Tempe, winning the game 47-14 and limiting Brink to 14-of-30 for 161 yards and two touchdowns against two interceptions, but the Cougars are known to often play opponents much tougher at home. This season, for example, they are 2-0 at home and 0-3 on the road, including a 48-20 loss to Arizona last weekend.
With this Saturday being Homecoming at Martin Stadium and with coach Bill Doba feeling more pressure to win now than at any point in his four and a half years in the Pallouse, the Sun Devils have to be aware of what ASU coach Dennis Erickson might call cornered-cat syndrome.
When asked about a rash of injury woes plaguing the team, Erickson said, "You ever backed a Cougar in a corner? It ain't pretty. I know that program too well. I know the character that they have with the players in that program, I know the character of their football coach. Believe me, it's a dangerous place. We're going to have to play our rear ends off."
Primarily, the Sun Devils have to be ready for the all-out aerial assault it figures to face against Brink, who has completed 67.5% of his throws on the season, and has four receivers with 20 or more catches to this point.
Junior Brandon Gibson leads the team with 34 receptions for 487 yards and five touchdowns. He's followed closely by senior Michael Bumpus, with 30 catches for 356 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Jed Collins is one of the top tight end targets in the league, with 27 catches for 204 yards and three touchdowns.
The Cougars are not known as a running team, and have a pass to run ratio of about 58% pass and 42% run. But that's also due in part to the fact they've played from behind more often than not, and it should not discount the capability of 5-foot-10, 200 pound sophmore running back Dwight Tardy, who has 82 carries for 396 yards and four touchdowns. He's averaging a solid 4.8 yards per attempt and 79.2 yards per game.
For Washington State, the problems are primarily on the defense side, where they rank 103rd in total defense (457.2 yards allowed per game) and 104th in scoring defense (36.4 points) out of 119 Division I football teams. They rank last in the Pac-10 in total defense, scoring defense and passing defense. They have given up 12 first downs more than any other Pac-10 team, and are ninth in the league with just eight sacks through five games.
Erickson said this week that he expected Washington State to attempt to put pressure on quarterback Rudy Carpenter via the blitz because several recent opponents have had some success with a similar philosophy. Carpenter was sacked six times by Stanford last Saturday.
However, Doba told reporters this week that his team has essentially abandoned an attack defense in favor of a bend-but-don't-break approach due largely to the personnel on hand. Washington State did not have a sack versus Arizona last week, and it has had trouble putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Last season, Carpenter had his best passing game of the season against the Cougars, throwing for 339 yards and three touchdown, all in excess of 30 yards, before coming out of the contest with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Cougars are going to have to do a much better job of defending the pass in this game if they hope to avoid having to win in a shootout this time around, but the Sun Devils appear to be vastly improved at the receiver position, making that task all the more difficult.
Additionally, both USC and Arizona were able to run for more than 200 yards versus the Cougars, and that could be a problem, with the Sun Devils offensive line showing more consistency with its run blocking than pass protection this season. A healthy stable of running backs led by Ryan Torain racked up 174 rushing yards last week versus Stanford, another of the league's poor run defenses.
Junior middle linebacker Gary Trent leads Washington State with 47 tackles on the season. The team's second-leading tackler, safety Alfonso Jackson, and fourth-leading tackler, outside linebacker Kendrick Dunn, are likely to miss the game due to injuries which further weaken an already suspect defense. Dunn is also second on the team in sacks, with two.
Senior free safety Husain Abdullah leads the team with two interceptions. True freshman corner Chima Nwachukwu has been thrown into the fire and is learning via experience. He is third on the team with 34 tackles, and he has two pass breakups and one interception.
Up front, the Cougars' best pass rusher thus far has been sophomore defensive end Kevin Kooyman, who leads the team with three sacks.
With Arizona State leading the Pac-10 in red zone offense, at 95%, and the Cougars last in the conference in red zone defense, allowing scores 91.7% of the time, this game could get ugly unless the Washington State passing attack really is able to exploit the Sun Devils, causing a high scoring shootout.
Special teams woes further contribute to problems Washington State is having this season. Former first-team punter Darryl Blunt dropped a punt snap against USC and has struggled all season. He was recently replaced by freshman Reid Forrest, and Blunt was subsequently suspected for conduct detrimental to the team by Doba. The team will sometimes use a "rugby-style" punt where either Forrest or Bumpus punt the ball on the run. Bumpus is also a good punt returner, though he's yet to show it this season. He's averaging just 1.7 yards per attempt. Senior placekicker Romeen Abdollmohammadi is 2-of-4 on field goal attempts.
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