Theme of the game …
With three games remaining on their regular-season schedule – including the Apple Cup – the Washington State Cougars need one more victory to secure a postseason berth.
WSU (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) is a healthy favorite to lock up a bowl bid when it stages its second-to-last home game at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, hosting Arizona State (3-6, 2-4).
The Cougars have reached bowl eligibility in each of their past six full seasons. Extending this season by a month would go a long way toward the development of a young team led by a first-year coaching staff.
“We all want to play more. We all want to keep this team together for as long as we can,” freshman Cougar safety Jaden Hicks said.
There might not be a better opportunity than this weekend for WSU to ensure that its season moves into December.
The Cougars have home-field advantage and momentum at their backs coming off a complete performance last weekend, when they stormed past Stanford 52-14. The Sun Devils haven’t been pushovers under their interim coach this year. But in terms of matchups, this is probably the most winnable game left on the Cougars’ schedule.
When Washington State has the ball …
As of Wednesday, the Cougars were “still sorting out” their situation at left tackle.
WSU lost its best offensive lineman last weekend against Stanford, when LT Jarrett Kingston suffered a season-ending lower-body injury.
Three players are being considered for the job. Freshman Christian Hilborn is the most obvious choice. WSU’s starting left guard throughout the year and a reserve tackle last season, Hilborn stepped in for Kingston against the Cardinal and didn’t miss a beat.
Right guard Grant Stephens, a senior transfer who played tackle at his previous school, is also in the competition. So is Jack Wilson, the 6-foot-11 former Division I basketball player.
“Grant and Christian are kind of flip-flopping (between guard and tackle) and Jack’s been in the mix, rotating with the 1s and 2s,” Dickert said. “We’ll get the best plan, but don’t be surprised if we kind of rotate them, even as the game goes, and keep guys fresh.”
WSU’s offensive line, despite playing shorthanded for three quarters, put together its best game of the year, finishing with no sacks allowed for the first time this season and paving the way for 306 rushing yards against Stanford.
“There’s been some hard times in that room. They’ve been through a lot,” Dickert said of the O-line, which has ceded a conference-high 30 sacks. “But they are warriors and working really hard. (O-line coach Clay) McGuire is ready and we always knew we’d get here at some point and we’d have to get all of those guys ready.”
Starting tailback Nakia Watson returned after two weeks sidelined due to an injury and “lifted the spirit and mindset of everybody,” Dickert said. Watson ran for 166 yards to headline the Cougars’ best rushing day since 2006 – and just the program’s sixth 300-yard rushing game since 2000.
“I think Nakia has been above expectations,” Dickert said of the junior. “There is a different confidence when he’s out there right now. That comes from experience.”
WSU’s backfield will return to full power . Backup Jaylen Jenkins is back after missing the Stanford game with an injury.
The Cougars’ ground game had been the Pac-12’s least-productive rushing attack for eight games this year, but jumped a spot in the rankings after shredding the Cardinal.
WSU appears poised to build upon last week’s rushing success versus the Sun Devils, whose defensive line is a soft spot. ASU ranks in the bottom 10 nationally in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (35). The Sun Devils gave up 402 yards on 42 carries in a loss last week to UCLA. ASU is ninth in the Pac-12 in rushing defense at 153 yards allowed per game.
“They ran the ball well against Stanford, so we have our job cut out for us this week,” ASU interim coach Shaun Aguano said.
“We were thin (versus UCLA). We knew we were going to struggle up there. We’ll be healthy this week. The conversation is: We need to make a change, we need to make sure (rushing defense) is addressed.”
WSU’s offense has struggled to stay on the field on third downs, converting just 36.5% of third-down attempts – 11th in the Pac-12 and 94th nationally. But the Sun Devils’ third-down defense has been among the worst in the FBS, allowing 51.1% of conversions – 130th nationally.
When Arizona State has the ball …
The Sun Devils leaned on the pass during their past two games, both shootouts, and totaled a combined 784 yards through the air. But ASU’s offense usually operates with a 50/50 balance between the pass and ground game.
Quarterback Trenton Bourguet took over at the starting spot a couple of weeks ago. The sophomore is tossing quick passes with accuracy and avoiding costly mistakes in an aggressive scheme introduced by Aguano earlier this season after fifth-year coach Herm Edwards was sent packing.
“We’re trying to get rid of the ball quick,” said Aguano, who previously served as ASU’s running backs coach. “Even on our longer downs, the third-and-long downs, we’re still trying to get the ball out quick and not taking those five-, seven-step dropbacks that put us at a disadvantage with guys coming in off the edges.”
Bourguet replaced dual-threat Florida transfer Emory Jones in the starting lineup last month. But according to a report from DevilsDigest.com, Jones took some first-team reps at practice Wednesday.
It’s been an inconsistent season for the ASU offense, which ranks in the bottom half in every statistical column in the Pac-12 except red-zone offense. The team’s brightest offensive player has been Wyoming transfer tailback Xazavian Valladay, the active FBS leader in career rushing yards (4,126). Valladay is ASU’s workhorse (852 yards, 12 touchdowns) and also a reliable check-down option in the team’s quick-passing game. He caught 10 passes for 89 yards last week.
“I’ll put my money on ‘X’ with the ball in his hands one-on-one outside and he’ll always come out with a positive gain,” Aguano said. “I think (Bourguet) does a great job of not forcing things.”
ASU is a top-50 team nationally with 12 turnovers committed this year. WSU collected four of its 13 takeaways on the year during last week’s win. The Sun Devils have given up seven sacks over the past four weeks. The Cougars are still searching for an uptick in pass-rushing production. They managed five sacks over the past four weeks.
“We gotta be able to sack the quarterback in a four-down pass rush,” Dickert said. “I think we’re capable of doing those things. I just think, in conference, we haven’t been able to quite affect the guy enough. That’s why our interception numbers (six this year) probably haven’t been where we feel like they can be.”
WSU’s defense, which leads the Pac-12 in scoring (20 ppg), has given up 16 passing plays of 20-plus yards across the past five weeks. The Cougars held three of their past five opponents under 200 yards passing.
“Back-end communication, we’ve been phenomenal the last four or five weeks of just making sure we’re on the same page and not giving up easy plays,” Dickert said.
At the top of the scouting report for WSU’s secondary is ASU’s Elijhah Badger, one of the five most-productive receivers in the conference (710 yards, five touchdowns).
Cougars know how Sun Devils feel
WSU played the second half of its 2021 season under Dickert, who served as acting coach while keeping his duties as defensive coordinator after Nick Rolovich lost his job for failing to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
One of Dickert’s first steps toward earning the full-time gig came on Oct. 30, 2021, when WSU went to Tempe, Arizona, and steamrolled the Sun Devils behind five takeaways. It was Dickert’s first win at the helm.
Aguano took over on Sept. 18. ASU and Edwards parted ways after a 1-2 start and an embarrassing loss to Eastern Michigan. Aguano logged his first win as a head coach on Oct. 8, when the Sun Devils rallied past a ranked Washington team.
The Sun Devils have clearly improved under Aguano, who assumed play-calling duties and simplified the playbook.
“We can kind of relate a little bit to the coaching change and how that affects the team and play calls,” WSU edge rusher Quinn Roff said. “They definitely tweaked a couple of things.”
ASU will probably need to win out in order for Aguano to be given any consideration for the permanent job. The Sun Devils, 2-4 under Aguano , must win their final three games to secure a bowl bid.
Pac-12’s top two tacklers take the stage
Arizona State linebacker Kyle Soelle paces the conference with 98 tackles. Cougars linebacker Daiyan Henley ranks second with 85 stops. Soelle, a 235-pound senior from Scottsdale, Arizona, has recorded 2½ tackles behind the line of scrimmage this year. Henley, a 232-pound senior from Los Angeles, is second in the Pac-12 with 11 TFLs.