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First look: Washington State, reinvigorated and one win shy of bowl eligibility, hosts Arizona State team led by interim coach

With a season-ending injury to Jarrett Kingston, right, fellow Washington State offensive lineman Christian Hilborn, left, will work with a replacement to help protect Cougars quarterback Cameron Ward (1).  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

What is it? Coming off a reinvigorating victory, Washington State (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) is eyeing bowl eligibility when it faces Arizona State (3-6, 2-4), which is playing under an interim coach.

Where is it? WSU will host the Sun Devils for family weekend at Gesa Field in Pullman.

When is it? Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m. Saturday. Forecasts call for temperatures in the mid-30s.

Where can I watch it? Pac-12 Network will carry the broadcast.

Who is favored? The Cougars opened as 8.5-point favorites.

How did they fare last week? WSU impressed in all facets of the game during a bounce-back effort. The Cougars snapped a three-game losing streak with an emphatic road win, stomping Stanford 52-14.

“Our guys played extremely hard, they were excited to be out there and they executed at a lot better level than we had been,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said Monday.

The Cougars forced and recovered four fumbles in the first half, running one back for a touchdown. WSU had made it a point to boost its takeaway numbers after recording only three across its first five Pac-12 games.

“It feels great getting the ball out, forcing four turnovers,” nickel Armani Marsh said. “We haven’t really had that breakout game as far as turnovers this year.

“We’ve been emphasizing it a lot … just in practice, doing turnover circuits and emphasizing getting the ball out, punching at it and doing whatever it takes to get it out. It showed up on Saturday.”

WSU scored touchdowns on each of its first three possessions, turning the game into a runaway early. The Cougars scored 42 points in the first half after totaling 41 points combined over their past three games.

“I just think there was some confidence that happened on Saturday,” Dickert said. “We got off to a fast start, as fast as you possibly can.”

Spearheaded by starting tailback Nakia Watson – who made a triumphant return to the lineup after missing two weeks with an injury – the Cougars exploited Stanford’s weak run defense and piled up 306 yards on the ground during their best rushing day in 16 years.

“You saw on Saturday what the run does for you,” Dickert said. “It sets up everything. It’s the willingness to stay committed to it. That’s what we need to continue to do as we finish the season, even if we get some negative runs, to come back to it and trust that we can still make those blocks and finish.”

The Sun Devils fell behind by a big deficit in the first half and a late surge came up short in a 50-36 loss to No. 9 UCLA on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

ASU trailed 42-18 midway through the third quarter before making its push, trimming the Bruins’ lead to six points with 6 minutes remaining in the game. UCLA answered with a long scoring series to turn back the Devils’ upset bid.

The Bruins amassed 402 yards and five touchdowns on 42 rushing attempts. They went 9 of 11 on third-down conversions. ASU quarterback Trenton Bourguet completed 38 of 49 passes for 349 yards.

Scouting the opponent

Amid an NCAA investigation for alleged recruiting violations, ASU dumped fifth-year coach Herm Edwards after an upset loss to Eastern Michigan on Sept. 17. Running backs coach Shaun Aguano took the helm on an acting basis. As one would expect, there have been plenty of lows for the Devils over these past two months. But it could be worse.

After dropping lopsided games against Pac-12 title contenders Utah and USC in the weeks following their coaching shakeup, the Sun Devils received a strong performance from backup QB Bourguet and scored a shootout win over a ranked Washington team. ASU split its next two games against lowly Pac-12 foes Stanford (15-14 loss) and Colorado (42-34 win) before the spirited effort last weekend at UCLA.

In assessing his opponent this week, Dickert said he sees a motivated Sun Devils team that simplified its schemes in the wake of its coaching change and never folded. ASU got a spark from Bourguet, a fourth-year Sun Devil and career reserve who replaced Florida transfer Emory Jones in the starting lineup. Bourguet has thrown for 966 yards and eight touchdowns against three interceptions on a 75.2% completion rate. He’s been sacked three times over three games.

“They’re a different team with (Bourguet) at quarterback,” Dickert said. “You see a distinct shift in what they were doing then to what they’re doing now. It’s cleaner, it’s easier … it’s getting the ball out (quickly) and they’re protecting him at a high level.

“The sign of a good football team – obviously we went through this all last year with the interim coach thing – they’re playing hard,” added Dickert, who took the helm at WSU on an acting basis in October 2021 following the dismissal of coach Nick Rolovich. “That’s the sign of a hungry football team that is going to come out here wanting to win and that’s the sign of a team that hasn’t quit.”

The Sun Devils’ offense, which operates at a near-50/50 balance, boasts one of the Pac-12’s top tailbacks in Xazavian Valladay, the active leader in FBS rushing yards at 4,126 career yards, including 852 this year. The Wyoming transfer and Doak Walker Award watch list player leads all running backs in the conference with 12 touchdowns.

ASU ranks eighth in the conference in scoring offense (27.1 ppg) and ninth in total offense (379.1). The Devils have scored 35-plus points in three of their past four games. But they’ll be up against a Cougars defense that leads the Pac-12 in points allowed per game (20) and yards allowed per play (5.2).

The Devils sit in the bottom half of the conference in every defensive stat category. They have struggled to generate a pass rush and contain running backs. ASU has come up with just 11 sacks and 35 tackles for loss – 124th and 128th in the nation, respectively. The Sun Devils’ rushing defense is ninth in the conference at 153 yards per game and coming off its worst showing of the year.

WSU has given up a conference-high 30 sacks and its rushing game hasn’t been reliable this season, but the Cougars’ O-line had a sack-free day during its best game of the year last weekend, paving the way for a stellar game on the ground.

“I think there are some opportunities that we need to take advantage of in the run game,” Dickert said. “There are some seams we gotta take advantage of, but it starts up front.”

The most pressing matter concerning WSU’s offense: Who will protect quarterback Cameron Ward’s blind side? Standout left tackle Jarrett Kingston suffered a season-ending injury last weekend and the Cougars will spend the week sorting out his replacement.

What happened last time?

WSU shot out to a healthy lead in the first half and coasted to the finish in a 34-21 win over ASU on Oct. 30, 2021, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. The Cougars forced five turnovers during their first victory under Dickert, then in his second week as the team’s interim head coach.

Things to know

1. Dickert is well aware of ASU’s talent at the running back position. Valladay, the senior tailback, is familiar with Dickert’s defense. The two spent three seasons together at the University of Wyoming (2017-19). Dickert served as the Cowboys’ safeties coach between 2017 and ‘18. Valladay redshirted in 2017, then broke out as a reserve the next year, posting 396 rushing yards. Dickert was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2019, and Valladay became one of the top 25 most productive tailbacks in the nation that season, accumulating 1,265 yards en route to a first-team All-Mountain West nod. Dickert left for WSU in 2020. Valladay stayed for five years at the Laramie school before transferring to ASU this offseason.

“My three years at Wyoming, ‘X’ was one of the best tailbacks in the country,” Dickert said. “He’s been phenomenal. Sometimes (the NCAA portal) gives them the opportunity to go out and show their talent on a bigger stage, and I think he’s taken full advantage of it.

“He dang near plays every down. He’s been a workhorse for them and he’s been one of the best backs in the Pac-12.”

2. Dickert shined a light on his defense’s improved passing coverage downfield. The Cougars surrendered nine passes of 20 or more yards on Sept. 24 in a loss to Oregon, but have yielded only 11 such plays in the past four games.

“Our secondary’s communication and not giving up the explosive passing plays has been really incredible,” he said.

3. The Sun Devils hold a 27-15-2 advantage over WSU in the series. The Cougars have won three of the past four. The last three matchups were staged in Tempe. ASU hasn’t made the trip to Pullman since 2015 – a 38-24 Cougars win.