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First look: Washington State heads to the desert for Game 2 under Jake Dickert

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

What is it? Washington State (4-4, 3-2 Pac-12) will play its first road game in four weeks – and first contest away from home under interim coach Jake Dickert – when it meets the defensive-minded, run-heavy Arizona State Sun Devils (5-2, 3-1) for a conference matchup.

Where is it? Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.

When is it? Kickoff is set for noon PST on Saturday.

Where can I watch it? Fox Sports 1 will broadcast the game.

Who is favored? The Sun Devils opened as 15-point favorites.

How did they fare last week? Coming off a week of upheaval in which head coach Nick Rolovich and four of his assistants were terminated for failing to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccination mandate, WSU traded jabs with Brigham Young throughout Dickert’s debut as acting boss. A memorable win was foiled by WSU’s inability to stop BYU’s ground game, shaky stretches of offense and an unsuccessful PAT try. The Cougs scored a touchdown with just over four minutes to play but couldn’t convert a two-point attempt and fell 21-19.

Arizona State had a bye last week. On Oct. 16, the Sun Devils squandered a 14-point lead and surrendered 28 unanswered points to Utah, which pulled away late to prevail 35-21 in Salt Lake City. ASU’s offense was stagnant in the second half and Utah controlled the time of possession column.

Why WSU will win: The Sun Devils lost to BYU and Utah by a combined 24 points, while the Cougars dropped games against those teams by a total of 13 points. ASU is impressive on paper, yet three of the Sun Devils’ wins came against hapless foes in Southern Utah, UNLV and Colorado.

In their two losses, standout quarterback Jayden Daniels was bottled up for under 50 yards rushing. WSU’s edge-rushers have rattled opposing QBs in three of the past four games. ASU had possession for less than 15 minutes in the second half against Utah and gained only 97 yards as the Utes sat on the ball. The Cougs have seemingly become effective in grinding out long possessions. Their three most productive series against BYU averaged out to about five minutes apiece. WSU running back Max Borghi is hitting his stride at the midseason point. He has totaled 172 yards on 35 carries over the past two weeks, and he might have some help come Saturday – Deon McIntosh is probable to return from an injury that kept him sidelined last week and for half of the Stanford game. The Cougars have proven to be a resilient bunch. They fielded a competent product last weekend despite five of their coaches being terminated five days prior to their tilt with BYU. Dickert said the remaining coaches handled the transition with grace, and it showed Saturday. “It was very efficient and smooth, and I think it’ll be even better headed into Game 2.”

Why ASU will win: WSU’s defense has been beaten up in the run game a bit this year, conceding over 200 rushing yards in four of its eight games. “We’ve just been a little leaky as the season has gone on,” Dickert said. The Cougars have “been able to make the big play to stop that momentum,” but they’ve been too reliant on takeaways late in opponents’ possessions. BYU never turned the ball over and, for the most part, rumbled through WSU’s front for intermediate gains on early downs en route to a 238-yard rushing day. “We need to be more aggressive in the core,” Dickert said. “That D-tackle group, our inside linebacker group, we need to be more physical.”

The Sun Devils thrive on the ground. They pace the Pac-12 and rank sixth nationally with 22 rushing touchdowns and sit third in the league with 203.7 yards per game.

The Cougars will have to account for four capable runners, a group led by RB Rachaad White (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and a budding superstar in Daniels, both of whom have topped 400 rushing yards this year.

Daniels is the most mobile QB the Cougars will face all season, and WSU hasn’t been exceptional at containing elusive signal-callers. ASU also boasts the Pac-12’s top statistical defense – first in scoring (18.9 ppg) and total yards (321 ypg) – and it’ll be squaring off against a WSU offense that went quiet for extended durations versus BYU, likely owing to the fact that the Cougs lost their offensive-minded head coach in Rolovich and their play-caller in Craig Stutzmann last week. The Sun Devils are fresh off a bye and hosting WSU for their homecoming day.

What happened last time? Daniels threw for a career-high 363 yards and plunged past the goal line on a wowing 17-yard touchdown scamper with 34 seconds left to lift ASU to a 38-34 win over WSU on Oct. 12, 2019. The two offenses exchanged punches throughout the game and combined for 1,030 yards. The Sun Devils have the advantage in the all-time series 27-14-2. The conference foes have only met once since 2017.

Things to know

The Cougars are especially familiar with Arizona State’s defense. They’ve been studying it all season. The Sun Devil defense mirrors WSU’s in terms of its “style and scheme,” Dickert said. “Each week, when we study an offense, we try to find similar defenses that look like us, and they (the Devils) are the No. 1. … It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s a scheme and a group I’ve seen a lot in crossover film.”

WSU is the only team in the Pac-12 featuring two receivers with over 500 yards apiece. Veteran slots Calvin Jackson Jr. (528 yards) and Travell Harris (525) have combined for 92 receptions and nine touchdowns.

Jahad Woods was “itching” to play after sitting out for most of the Stanford game because of an early targeting call. He rebounded with a season-high 16-tackle performance versus BYU. It was Woods’ second-highest tackling total – behind his 20 in the 2019 Cheez-It Bowl – in 51 career games. “Even after the Stanford game, he was texting guys early Sunday morning, ‘Let’s go hit the weight room,’ ” Dickert said. “He was locked in and ready to go, and I think he was flying around against BYU.”

The Sun Devil program is currently under investigation for NCAA recruiting violations. Assistants Prentice Gill , Chris Hawkins and Adam Breneman have been on administrative leave since the summer. ASU allegedly hosted recruits frequently during a COVID-19 dead period last season, when prep prospects weren’t allowed to take visits to schools.