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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

To beat ASU and end a three-game slide, Washington State will have to stop the run

PULLMAN – In the middle of his best season at Washington State, Cam Lampkin has spent a little time thinking about his celebrations.

At cornerback, he’s asked to cover some of the Pac-12’s best receivers, so when he makes a play, he has to roll out the right celebration.

Lampkin has toggled between a couple of different ones. He’s mimed strapping in a seat belt. He’s pointed at the ball on the ground when he’s broken up passes.

“But I kind of gotta come up with a signal for myself,” Lampkin said. “I just don’t know yet.”

If Lampkin makes enough plays to come up with an idea on Saturday, when WSU visits Arizona State for a 5 p.m. kickoff, the Cougars will be in a good spot to end their three-game skid.

Washington State could sure use something extra from Lampkin – from its whole defense for that matter. In their past two losses, setbacks to Arizona and Oregon, the Cougars have yielded 44 and 38 points, respectively. They’ve failed to create a single turnover and, in perhaps the more pertinent development, they’ve languished in run defense.

That matters this weekend because Arizona State makes no bones about its offense: It’s all about the run. The head of the snake is Cam Skattebo, an FCS transfer who fashions himself a physical runner, a bulldozer who ranks among the Pac-12’s elite in yards after contact. The Sun Devils may be 1-6, but Skattebo has scored one touchdown in all but one contest, churning out consistent rushing outings.

How will the Cougars counter? They’ve drilled tackling hard in practice, Lampkin said, getting back to the fundamentals and avoiding what head coach Jake Dickert calls “shot” tackling – an attempt to lay a hit stick, not wrap up and bring down the ball-carrier. They’ve even shuffled personnel, inserting lineman Na’im Rodman on the interior and moving Nusi Malani to the edge, where he took reps in practice this week.

It’s all been too few results. In its loss to Arizona, Washington State permitted 174 rushing yards. In their loss to Oregon, the Cougars allowed 248. In that one, they may have faced an elite running back in Bucky Irving, but the personnel hasn’t always mattered for WSU this fall. Its execution – or lack thereof – has made sure of that.

WSU ranks last in the Pac-12 in rush defense, according to Pro Football Focus, posting a grade of 60.4 – almost three full points lower than second-to-last Stanford. The Cougars are getting moved at the line of scrimmage. Complicating matters is their thinning rotation on the edges.

Healthy are WSU’s stars Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson, but the Cougars have run into trouble when offenses get WSU’s backups on the field. In those moments, opponents have turned to a hurry-up offense to prevent the Cougars from subbing, which has left on the field guys like lineman Jernias Tafia, edge Andrew Edson and true freshman Ansel Din-Mbuh, a promising prospect but far from a complete player.

WSU is running out of defenders to run out there. Edge Quinn Roff has battled injuries all season, and he will miss Saturday’s game after having surgery to clear an infection. Fellow edge Raam Stevenson will also sit out with an injury. Freshman edge Isaac Terrell is on the mend from a hamstring injury, defensive tackle Rashad Mackenzie suffered a season-ending injury earlier in the year and edge Lawrence Falatea tore his ACL during fall camp.

That leaves WSU with only so many healthy bodies to play – and makes it even more important that those guys make stops when they can.

“It’s gonna be just us staying disciplined throughout the game,” Jackson said, “and when opportunities come, making those things happen. And not getting discouraged – you never wanna be upset when you’re rushing in a game when things aren’t going your way. You always wanna keep going.”

To make that point, Jackson likes to point to the play against Wisconsin, the one where Stone strip-sacked quarterback Tanner Mordecai and Jackson fell on the ball for a touchdown – but there are others, too. Against UCLA, Stone got pressure off the edge and forced Dante Moore to throw an interception, and even against Oregon State, the Cougars’ defense made enough plays to offset the Beavers’ tireless rushing attack.

There are reasons for WSU to stay confident in its defense, but the Cougars need to be better. In their loss to Oregon, some of their worst moments came when they played too aggressive, an over-play here, a bad pursuit route there. Sometimes they didn’t see the ball – that seems to be the only explanation for linebacker Devin Richardson getting blown up on a block with his back turned to the play – and other times they made a beeline for blockers, not the ball-carrier.

Such is life with a thin rotation at linebacker. Richardson and Kyle Thornton have started all season, but with redshirt sophomore Taariq Al-Uqdah a little green and senior transfer Ahman McCullough still working his way back into playing time after an injury, WSU only trusts a few guys at that spot.

The Cougars have learned the hard way that winning is difficult with a limited linebacker rotation – and with a secondary that’s having trouble wreaking havoc the way it did earlier in the season. Defensive back Kapena Gushiken’s 88-yard pick-six against UCLA feels like it happened years ago, as does Sam Lockett’s interception in that game. That’s the last time the Cougars had a takeaway.

Can they turn things around against an ASU offense that, outside of Skattebo, has yet to find its footing? Their schedule seems to be softening, but the Cougars have to prove they can treat it that way.

“I think (it’s) just having confidence in our attack angles, our leverage and just really taking our shots low to stop this guy,” Jackson said of Skattebo. “We’ve seen many times on tape where he just kind of runs through the first or second attacker and keeps going. So that’s a big thing we’ve been focused on this week in practice.”