TEMPE, Arizona – The Washington State Cougars dropped a tight game to BYU last Saturday, concluding a hectic week that no doubt tested their spirits.
Three days later, when they returned to Rogers Field for a training session, they still had a collective sense of optimism.
“We came to practice with energy, with positive energy,” cornerback Chau Smith-Wade said. “That’s something we’re gonna continue to try to push.”
The Cougs (4-4, 3-2 Pac-12) have been adamant – their enthusiasm for this game and expectations for themselves are very much intact.
WSU hopes to make a statement Saturday when it meets Arizona State (5-2, 3-1) for a rare noon matchup in the desert at Sun Devil Stadium. The Cougars are 16-point underdogs, but that won’t deter them – nothing has yet in a season that’s been full of gut checks.
They’re proving to be quite the unshakable bunch.
“I’m sure they’re going to be hungry to come in here and show us what they got,” ASU offensive coordinator Zak Hill said.
Their most recent trial: rebounding after losing half of their coaching staff, including boss Nick Rolovich, on Oct. 18.
WSU filled in the empty posts late last week, but the team wasn’t able to conduct practices with its new assistants until after its 21-19 loss to BYU, during which WSU showed exceptional resilience and came up shy of an upset by just a play or two.
“The team has done a fantastic job with maturity through this whole situation we’re in, especially the young guys,” edge Brennan Jackson said. “They’ve found themselves not leaning toward bad habits. They have been focused and realized that, if we’re going to get through this, we need to do it as a team.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to make memories as a team and no matter what happens on the outside, that can’t take away the joy we have playing this game.”
Defensive coordinator Jake Dickert is starting to get accustomed to his new duties as acting head coach – making time to adjust with his defenders while also assessing the offense.
He said the communication between himself and the Cougs’ two other coordinators – Brian Smith (offense) and Kyle Krantz (special teams) – was better than might have been expected versus BYU.
“I think it was good in Game 1 and it’ll be better this week,” he said. “Going through it again in Game 2 of us being together, I think it’ll be smooth. Our guys trust the staff and they know we have their best interests at heart.”
The Cougs’ offense will certainly need a more productive output to get past the Sun Devils, who enjoy the top statistical defense in the Pac-12, a unit that pesters opposing quarterbacks and has mostly been stout in the ground game.
But ASU is coming off an unusually rough outing in stopping the run. The Sun Devils, who had a bye last week, permitted 208 yards and 5.8 yards per carry against Utah two weeks ago.
WSU running back Max Borghi has gotten going in the past two games, and he’ll likely be joined this week by Deon McIntosh, who’d been injured for the past game and a half.
Dickert said the Sun Devil defense resembles WSU’s.
“They’re physical up front,” he said. “They can also get to the passer because they’re athletic. The second level, you’ve got guys that play sideline to sideline and their secondary has been pretty salty. It’s going to be a challenge but it’s a scheme and a group I’ve seen a lot in film.”
The Cougar defense will face another chore up front in a four-headed ASU rushing attack that’s among the conference’s most efficient.
It’ll be crucial for WSU to rattle star quarterback Jayden Daniels and keep him bottled in the pocket.
“It’s definitely going to be a fun game to see how we can contain him,” Jackson said. “I think we’ve got a good scheme in place.”
And as every player who spoke this week noted, the Cougars’ ambitions for this year remain in place. Their enthusiasm has not dwindled and they could still make a run at the Pac-12 North.
“The energy and effort is there. The pride and passion is there,” Dickert said. “The fire, the intensity and effort has really returned. The guys are just enjoying each other.
“Those are things, as coaches, you can really grab onto. We’ll coach those guys any day because they care, and they’re continuing to care.”
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