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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Two-minute drill: Washington State’s keys to victory against Arizona State

PULLMAN – Here’s what to watch for when Washington State visits Arizona State on Saturday evening.

When Arizona State has the ball …

Injuries have forced the Sun Devils to start who they planned to be their third-string quarterback, Trenton Bourguet, a key reason why they’ve leaned so hard on their running game.

In that department, ASU’s top weapon is Cam Skattebo, a transfer from FCS Sacramento State who is making the conference wonder why he needed to start his career elsewhere. During the Sun Devils’ 1-6 start, Skattebo has piled up 104 carries for 413 yards and six touchdowns, but those numbers don’t paint the whole picture.

More important are Skattebo’s numbers after contact. He’s racked up 294 yards after contact, which comes out to an average of 2.83 yards after contact. At 5-foot-10 and 212 pounds, Skattebo uses a low center of gravity to withstand tackles, forcing several defenders to converge to take him down.

“Their running back just seems like a bulldozer,” WSU edge rusher Brennan Jackson said. “I’m just watching him on tape. He’s someone who turns his legs, he goes through contact – he looks for contact. So another one of those running backs that’s gonna be going through the motors and getting them down early.”

Can the Cougars bring Skattebo down? If so, they figure to have a good chance at ending their three-game losing streak. If not, well, they might be in for a long evening.

For WSU, central to that effort will be two factors: One, can the Cougars tackle well? Two, can their defensive line win matchups against the ASU offensive line?

The Sun Devils’ front five – left tackle Bram Walden, left guard Sean Na’a, center Leif Fautanu, right guard Joey Ramos and right tackle Max Iheanachor – ranks second to last in the Pac-12 in run blocking (right above WSU). If there’s anything resembling a weak link in there, it’s Iheanachor, a junior college transfer who only started playing football in 2022.

Can Jackson beat Iheanachor, both in the run and pass game? That may have an outsize impact on this one.

When WSU has the ball …

The unexpected thing about this matchup, ostensibly an Air Raid offense against a run-heavy offense, is that the Cougars will also need to establish something of a ground attack. That’s always true for their offense, but this week it takes on even more importance because their running back room has thinned in a major way.

On Monday, WSU head coach Jake Dickert said, scatback Jaylen Jenkins was dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules. Backup Dylan Paine, a walk-on who played in Jenkins’ place last week against Oregon, will sit out with a high-ankle sprain.

That means three Cougars will take on the running responsibilities – starter Nakia Watson, who is still looking for a breakout game this fall, plus two freshmen: redshirt freshman Djouvensky Schlenbaker and true freshman Leo Pulalasi, a duo whose only meaningful playing time this season came in early September, in a win over FCS Northern Colorado.

“Djouvensky is ready. And Leo is getting ready himself,” Dickert said. “We need big things out of Nakia. We need one of those big games. Obviously, a protection game is gonna be huge. That’s part of that running back’s job – (ASU) has very complicated pressure schemes. But we gotta live in the details this week.”

Watson, Schlenbaker and Pulalasi will share with their offensive line a task that proved paramount last week against Oregon: pass protection. On one occasion, Watson picked up a key block, and Paine did the same later in the game. The Sun Devils will bring pressure from all angles, which means those guys will need to keep their eyes up.

It also means that WSU’s offensive line can help out by improving as run-blockers. The Cougars’ unit – left tackle Esa Pole, left guard Christian Hilborn, center Konner Gomness, right guard Brock Dieu and right tackle Fa’aliil Fa’amoe – ranks last in the Pac-12 in run-blocking, per PFF, which has reflected in their team’s rushing totals.

So what can the Cougars do this weekend to open up lanes for their backs?

“We just gotta find a way to (have) all five guys doing their job as good as they possibly can to create some explosive runs. We haven’t done that this year,” WSU offensive line coach Clay McGuire said. “You look at a lot of these run plays, you got one, two, three, four guys doing a really good job – we got one guy not.

“And so the biggest thing is just playing together and executing five guys together – or six, depending on who’s in the blocking schemes with the tight end – just to make sure that we get our job done the right way.”

That’s important for WSU’s rushing attack, but also for its passing game. Last week, Cameron Ward had more time to throw than he’d had in a month, which was a huge reason why he found receiver Lincoln Victor for a school-record 16 receptions. Against ASU, if Ward has that kind of time – and the Cougars get something big from Watson – WSU can erase their three-game skid.