PULLMAN – A few days after Washington State turned in its best effort of the season – defeating Stanford by 38 points to snap a three-game skid – Cougars coach Jake Dickert was asked how his team managed to turn things around.
The Cougars didn’t make any sweeping changes to their schemes or personnel, he said. They “stayed the course” and trusted that they’d break through eventually.
“It’s getting better at what you do and executing what you do and having confidence in what you do,” Dickert said. “I mean that. I try to instill belief in our players and coaching staff every day. It’s powerful, because I think one of people’s biggest limiters is their belief system. If you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re typically right.”
WSU (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) absorbed several deflating losses during its midseason slide, but bounced back with an emphatic victory. Now heading into the home stretch of their season, the Cougars hope to be rejuvenated and see their persistence pay off.
“(The blowout win over Stanford) really pushed us a couple of steps forward,” Cougars safety Jaden Hicks said. “We’re only one win from a bowl game, so it just pumped us up even more. We’re even more hungry, looking for another ‘W’ this week.”
Back at home , WSU eyes postseason eligibility when it squares off with Arizona State (3-6, 2-4) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at frigid Gesa Field (Pac-12 Network).
The Cougars are favored by nine points over the up-and-down Sun Devils, who will be playing their seventh game under interim coach Shaun Aguano. Fifth-year coach Herm Edwards was fired in mid-September.
In ASU, Dickert sees signs of a “hungry team” that “hasn’t quit” despite its coaching shakeup. The Sun Devils are 2-4 since Aguano took the reins. Their finest moment came on Oct. 8, when they surprised a ranked Washington team. They’ve been largely inconsistent otherwise, losing 15-14 to Stanford and eking out a one-score win over lowly Colorado before a spirited performance in a 50-36 defeat versus No. 9 UCLA.
Under Aguano, the Sun Devils plugged in a new starting quarterback and simplified their offense. ASU takes a balanced approach and boasts one of the Pac-12’s top tailbacks in Xazavian Valladay, but the team has been riding QB Trenton Bourguet’s hot hand to the tune of 784 passing yards over the past two weeks.
“Part of that spark is the quarterback and what he’s provided to their offense,” Dickert said of Bourguet, a pocket passer who hasn’t made many errant decisions. “It starts with limiting some of the passing plays.”
ASU plays aggressively, often sending out its offense for fourth-down plays and 2-point tries.
“They understand … I’m going to go out on fourth down and make gambling calls,” Aguano said. “We have nothing to lose. We’re going to go try and win the football game.”
They’ll be up against a WSU defense that has established itself as one of the conference’s best . The Cougars are coming off their most dominant defensive effort in Pac-12 play. They forced four takeaways versus Stanford.
“We’ve emphasized (turnovers) even more in practice the last couple of weeks, and the guys have really taken it to heart,” Dickert said.
WSU ranks in the top half in each of the Pac-12’s defensive stat categories. The Cougars sit first in scoring defense (20 points per game), yards allowed per play (5.2) and tackles for loss (62), and fourth in rushing defense (122.8 yards per game). ASU’s offense ranks in the bottom half of the conference in most statistical columns.
“They’re a very stingy defense,” Aguano said of the Cougars. “They fit well in the run game. They bring all sorts of pressure up front. You have to manage that in the pass game. Our guys were in here early trying to figure that out.”
The Cougars spent the week sorting out their left tackle position, left vacant when standout Jarrett Kingston sustained a season-ending injury in the second quarter versus Stanford.
WSU still performed admirably up front and unlocked a feature of its offense that had been missing for much of its Pac-12 schedule.
Buoyed by the return of starting tailback Nakia Watson, the Cougars piled up over 300 yards on the ground during their best rushing day in 16 years. Stopping the run hasn’t been a strength of ASU’s defense, which yielded 402 rushing yards last weekend and has logged only 35 tackles for loss – third to last in the country.
Aside from matchup advantages, WSU will enjoy an edge in the bitter cold of Pullman against a team that isn’t accustomed to inclement weather. The Cougars are seeking their fifth win in the past six meetings with ASU. WSU is also looking to lock up a bowl berth for its seventh consecutive full season – excluding the four-game 2020 season.
“Belief is powerful because it really sustains the mission of what we’re trying to do as a team and as a program,” Dickert said. “There’s a special connection with this group. They want to prove who they can be and they’re fighting to stay together.
“We need one more win to become bowl eligible and we’re really approaching ‘1-0’ this week.”