PULLMAN – It was an up-and-down performance for the Washington State Cougars, to put it mildly, but the positives outweigh the negatives.
WSU (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12) scored its second consecutive win and secured a bowl bid for the seventh consecutive full season, handling Arizona State 28-18 on Saturday at Gesa Field.
“If our program ever thinks that’s not a big deal, we’re in the wrong place,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said of the Cougars’ streak of postseason appearances.
“They earned an opportunity to keep playing together, which is as big for the senior class as it is for those true freshmen that are going to get extra practices. But we want to finish. We feel like we’re a good team. We really do. They want to go out there and prove it.”
Up next, WSU will face an Arizona team that is fighting for its postseason life. The Cougars travel to the desert for an 11 a.m. kickoff Saturday against the Wildcats (4-6, 2-5), who stunned No. 9 UCLA this weekend behind a brilliant effort from quarterback Jayden de Laura , a former starter at WSU.
WSU also will be riding a new wave of confidence. After being dealt four losses by some of the Pac-12’s better teams earlier this season, the Cougars cleansed their palates and guaranteed themselves another month together with double-digit wins over conference also-rans Stanford and ASU.
“We’re not gonna take it for granted,” WSU linebacker Daiyan Henley said, sporting a “bowl bound” T-shirt. “I plan on being in that bowl game and giving it my all. But from week to week, (we are) proving we have more to do.”
Cougs click in first half
The Cougars opened the game with one of their best halves of the season, then followed that up with one of their worst halves of the year.
WSU rang up 28 points and 291 yards before the break during its third-most productive half of this campaign – behind the first half versus Stanford (335 yards, 42 points) last weekend and the second half against Cal (312 yards, 21 points) on Oct. 1.
WSU stalled on two possessions and committed a turnover on downs at the goal line. Otherwise, the Cougars offense clicked in the first half and moved downfield smoothly.
Ideal qualities of the “Coug Raid” were on display. WSU operated with balance, finding success through the air and on the ground. Quarterback Cameron Ward fired accurate short passes off quick drop-steps and his receivers blocked well on the perimeter. Ward averaged more than 10 yards per completion.
Lanes opened up for tailback Nakia Watson, who powered past tacklers at the second level and registered over 100 yards in the first half. He logged nearly 6 yards per touch and tallied a career-best three touchdowns.
“All he needs is that inch of space, and he’ll make it work,” left tackle Grant Stephens said of Watson.
WSU dialed up creative play-calls – including a couple of successful wildcat runs for Watson and a receiver sweep to freshman Leyton Smithson for his second-career touchdown.
The Cougars went into the locker room averaging 6.1 yards per play. WSU didn’t allow a sack and just two of its rushing plays were stopped in the backfield.
There was even more to like in the first half from a WSU defense that neutralized the Sun Devils at every turn. The Cougars’ defensive unit, which leads the Pac-12 in points allowed (19.8 per game), posted its first scoreless half since a rout of Colorado State on Sept. 17.
ASU, harassed by the Cougars’ edge rushers, averaged 9 yards and five plays per series across its six first-half possessions. Sun Devil quarterback Trenton Bourguet absorbed two sacks and had several of his throws affected by pressure. When he had time, WSU defensive backs played tight coverage and often batted passes to the turf. Bourguet was benched after passing 3 of 10 to start.
“It was awesome to see everybody out there basically having their best game, everybody rushing very aggressively,” WSU edge Brennan Jackson said.
At halftime, the Sun Devils had totaled 61 yards, with an average of 2.2 yards per play. They were 0-for-6 on third-down conversions.
“We went out and executed the plan,” said Henley, who headlined the defensive performance, tracking down ball-carriers all over the field and recording a game-high 10 tackles to boost his season total to 95 – second place in the Pac-12 and trailing the leader by three tackles. “To start with such a big play that Brennan gave us, it’s hard to not be excited about that and feel the fire, feel the energy. It’s contagious. … Once you feel it, you don’t want to let it go. That was the spark we needed. From there, it was making sure we keep it consistent.”
Jackson set the tone on ASU’s first possession. Unblocked off the edge, he bolted into the backfield at full speed and landed a crushing blindside hit on Bourguet. The ball shot backwards out of his hand and rolled down to the Sun Devils’ 1-yard line before ASU recovered. The Devils punted from deep inside their own territory and WSU capitalized on field position with its first scoring series.
The Cougars defense supplied another short field midway through the second quarter, when star cornerback Chau Smith-Wade jumped an errant pass for an interception and returned it 28 yards to the ASU 4-yard line.
Cougars falter in second half
WSU seemed to be in complete control at the start of the third quarter, leading 28-0 following Watson’s third touchdown of the day in the closing seconds of the first half.
The Cougars had a decent start after intermission. They forced back-to-back ASU punts. WSU got into field-goal range on its first drive before Ward missed a wide-open touchdown pass and took a sack to end the scoring threat.
The fog rolled in, temperatures dropped into the 20s, fans poured out of the stands and the Cougars lost steam fast. WSU’s defense struggled to get off the field and the offense couldn’t sustain drives during the team’s least-productive half of the season.
The Cougars mustered only 65 yards after the break. WSU had produced more than 100 yards in every half of the season up to that point. The Cougars didn’t score in the second half – their second scoreless half of the year (second half versus USC on Oct. 8). They averaged 2.7 yards per play after halftime and converted just three first downs after piling up 15 in the first half.
“We just have to keep trusting (ourselves),” Stephens said. “Sometimes, we hit these lulls where we kinda get down on ourselves when we make mistakes, which is good because we care so much and we want to be successful. But just continuing to battle through that, trusting our technique and trusting the coaching.”
Backup running back Jaylen Jenkins found a crease for a 36-yard run early in the third quarter. Excluding that play, WSU netted 26 yards on 21 snaps across five second-half drives.
The Cougars appeared to take a conservative approach, relying mostly on slow-developing inside runs in an attempt to kill time off the clock. They opted to run the ball 17 times and called seven passes, three of which resulted in sacks. The Cougars’ rushing attack was bottled up in the final period, producing 18 yards on 10 carries.
Sparked by standout running back Xazavian Valladay and backup quarterback Emory Jones, ASU began to resemble the explosive outfit that had tallied 35-plus points in three of its past four games. The Devils gained 177 of their 272 second-half yards in the fourth quarter. They connected on nine “big plays” – passes of 15-plus yards and runs of 10-plus yards – in the second half after coming up with three in the first half.
Defensively, it was WSU’s second-worst half of the year – the Cougars gave up 319 yards and 35 points in the second half versus Oregon on Sept. 24.
With its offense providing no relief, the Cougars defense started to wear down and yielded three touchdowns on ASU’s final four series.
“At the very end, there were some lapses in our assignments and whatnot that let up some big plays,” Jackson said. “As a defense, we want to make sure we can shut these guys out, shut down any team. At the end there, we don’t want to have those leaky plays. … They made it close at the end. That’s what they’ve been doing all year. They’ve been keeping games tight.”
It wasn’t all bad after the half for WSU’s defense, which added two more sacks and came through in the clutch, making a crucial stand on a fourth-and-goal with six minutes remaining to end ASU’s best drive of the day – 71 yards on 15 plays. The Sun Devils tacked on two TDs in the last four minutes of the game, but the red-zone stop earlier in the quarter essentially sealed the result.
“We were really the last two drives away from having a really special performance, dominating in every phase,” Dickert said of WSU’s defense. “(ASU) caught a bit of life at the end and our guys relaxed a little bit, but to start the game the way we did (was impressive).
“There are going to be a lot of (lessons) from this tape, just off the naked eye. There are a lot of different plays you think about that we need to clean up, but I’m still proud of our team. It’s a hard-fought win. It’s hard to win. … I thought we did what we needed to do to win the game, but you’d love to come out and play a better second half.”
WSU offense misses pieces in second half
Already lacking depth up front, the Cougars’ offensive line suffered another potential blow when right guard Ma’ake Fifita went down with a lower-body injury early in the third quarter.
Fifita spent a couple of minutes on the ground as trainers checked out his left leg or ankle. He was helped up and sat down on the back of a cart, which transported him to the locker room. Sophomore Quinn McCarthy filled in, making his third-career appearance on the WSU O-line.
Midway through the second quarter, standout slotback Robert Ferrel wound up at the bottom of a pile after making a short reception. He hobbled to the sideline and was held out of the second half.
Dickert did not have an update on either player after the game, but acknowledged that the Cougars might have to re-evaluate their O-line this week.
“We’re going to have to look at, once again, who the best five (linemen) are,” Dickert said. “We’ll see what the tape says (about McCarthy’s performance). In the Pac-12, when you grind through 10 weeks, this is what’s gonna happen.”
The Cougars’ offensive line underwent a slight transformation last week after standout left tackle Jarrett Kingston sustained a season-ending injury. Right guard Grant Stephens, a senior transfer who has experience playing tackle, filled in for Kingston. Fifita came off the bench to take over for Stephens, who was in the mix for the LT job last week with left guard Christian Hilborn. The Cougars made their decision Wednesday.
“It definitely took me a while to get settled in to playing tackle, but (teammates) all just rallied around me to make sure I’m confident and not overthinking it,” Stephens said. “We still have a lot of time, so I’m gonna continue to progress and continue working at it.”
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