PULLMAN – Although the snowflakes that descended upon Martin Stadium on Thursday will likely be gone by the time Arizona State and Washington State kick off on Saturday, they serve as a crystalline reminder that we have entered November, a month that has proven to be a frozen hell for the Sun Devils.
While the temperature in Tempe may have plunged from its preseason highs, shorts and skirts are still acceptable attire at ASU, where 70 degrees is still a chilly day.
The Cougars are in short sleeves, too.
“It’s a mental state of mind,” said defensive line coach Joe Salave’a, standing on the snow-covered football field in basketball shorts after Thursday night’s practice.
“Those are the elements that these guys have, too – you’re talking about staying focused and those things. If you’re not disciplined enough, it’s going to have an effect on your nerve. Credit to those kids, they’re able to get out here and get things done.”
The effects of doing any physical activity in the cold are obvious. Footballs and hands become harder and heavier, breaths become shorter and more labored and the brain becomes preoccupied with keeping warm rather than the task at hand.
The Sun Devils will say that the cold doesn’t affect them, that their focus is too great. And yet ASU (4-4, 2-3 Pac-12) has performed poorly in games played north of Los Angeles in November.
Last season the Sun Devils were 8-1 before traveling to Corvallis to play an Oregon State team that had one win in six conference games. After the game, during which temperatures dropped into the 20s, the Beavers had two wins and the Sun Devils’ playoff hopes were done.
On a chilly November day under the Salt Lake City mountains in 2013, a 6-2 ASU team eked out a one-point win on the road against a Utah team that was in the midst of a six-game losing streak. Of course, just one week earlier they won 55-31 in Pullman on Oct. 31.
The weather can only do so much.
To beat the Sun Devils, WSU (5-3, 3-2) must stop quarterback Mike Bercovici from running roughshod on the defense. While Bercovici’s rushing numbers (72 attempts for 83 yards and four touchdowns) don’t jump off the page, that total includes lost yardage from 25 sacks.
Bercovici can run: he had a 34-yard run at UCLA and last week he ran for 58 yards against Oregon, including an 18-yard carry. That’s bad news for the Cougars, who have allowed a quarterback to rush for more than 100 yards in each of their last three games.
And when the quarterbacks open up the defense, everything gets harder. The Cougars held Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan to minus-26 rushing yards in the first half of last week’s game and the Cardinal offense managed just 2.7 yards per play.
That’s quite good.
But in the second half, Hogan gained 15.3 yards per carry on his way to 138 yards, propelling the Stanford offense to 8.1 yards per play.
There was a similar effect observable in the previous week’s win at Arizona. The Wildcats did not utilize mobile quarterback Jerrard Randall in the first half and so its offense managed just 5.5 yards per play. In the second half, Randall rushed for 105 yards and the Wildcats picked up 8.4 yards per play.
Those results were quite bad.
The Cougars will also have to contend with ASU’s prodigious pass rush. But if Luke Falk can get his passes off, they should go for big yardage, since the Sun Devils are especially prone to giving up big plays in the passing game. No other Pac-12 team has given up as many passes of 40-yards or more (10) as the Sun Devils.
Both teams’ strengths will be tested and a sold-out crowd could make the difference in a close one.
Perhaps with a little help from the weather.
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