PULLMAN – The Washington State football team will take on Arizona State tonight. For all the Cougars care, they may as well be playing the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks or Pullman High School. The Sun Devils (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) look to be the toughest of WSU’s four remaining foes, a fact that doesn’t seem to concern the home team in the slightest.
The color and spectacle of the Halloween costumes in the stands will go unnoticed by the team, as will the odd day of the week and the late start time. According to WSU players and coaches, none of those factors will matter and the team from Tempe is just another in a long line of faceless, nameless opponents for the Cougars, who direct all their focus internally.
“Our world is a tunnel-vision world and for what we’re trying to instill in our players, the opportunity to get right, it gets back to coach (Mike) Leach’s philosophy,” defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said. “It’s about us and our ability to worry about the things that we need to take care of. And that’s minimizing hesitations, playing with great effort and being the most excited to play.”
For the Cougars (4-4, 2-3), tonight’s game won’t be about stopping ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly, who can damage a defense through the air or on the ground. Rather, it will be about getting four solid quarters out of Connor Halliday, who has put up big passing numbers this season but struggles with turnovers.
If you believe WSU’s coaches, the unforgiving ASU defense, which gives up the second-fewest passing yards in the Pac-12, won’t be on their mind. Instead, their thoughts will be consumed with whether or not the Cougars’ secondary can create the turnovers that have become their trademark this season.
That reflective approach is spurred in part by the team’s overall youth. Because WSU is so young and inexperienced, it simply doesn’t have time to worry about the other team. By necessity, all of the Cougars’ attention must go toward getting the younger players up to speed.
“In our case, what we lack the most is overall experience, so you try to manufacture that between watching film, meetings and practice, that type of thing,” Leach said. “The more you draw out of those things, the more you make up for your lack of experience.”
For WSU to come away with a win in its second-to-last home game of the season, it needs to fix a passing game that has produced 19 interceptions – four more than any other Pac-12 team.
The Cougars will likely reflect on what to do about a defense that is giving up just a hair less than 30 points per game, better than only Cal and Colorado among conference foes. It’s not as if the team doesn’t have ideas how to rectify the problems.
“Just a lack of communication,” linebacker Justin Sagote said of the defense’s issues. “(The) safeties are not talking to us, linebackers not talking to each other, not telling the defensive line where to go.”
Whether the Cougars fix their problems remains to be seen. But if they can’t, it won’t be for lack of trying. The team isn’t thinking about anything – or anyone – else.