ASU vs. Washington State: 5 questions

Arizona State and Washington State both enter Thursday’s matchup well-rested after bye weeks.  The Cougars, though, have home-field advantage on Halloween night for the national TV game.

The environment might prove to be of little impact, but the result will certainly be significant. ASU goes to Pullman with a one-game lead in the Pac-12 South and looks to maintain that control entering the final stretch of the season. The Sun Devils have yet to win a road game this season.

The Cougars, meanwhile, are fighting to get bowl eligible for the first time since 2003 and need two more wins to do so. Coach Mike Leach has Washington State playing better than many expected in his second year, and the “Air Raid” offense is second in the Pac-12 in passing.

FOXSportsArizona.com’s Tyler Lockman and the Spokane Spokesman-Review’s Washington State writer Jacob Thorpe report on these teams daily. Here, they break down Thursday’s game via five key questions. Both can be followed on Twitter @TylerLockman and @JacobThorpeSR.

1. This is a national TV game on a Thursday night, and it’s also Halloween. Washington State canceled classes to pack the place. How much could the environment have on this game?

Lockman: I think ASU could be walking into quite the setting in this one, and it could impact the Sun Devils’ focus if they let it. ASU might have let the big stage get to it when it played Notre Dame at Cowboys Stadium and doesn’t have a great track record on the road under Todd Graham. The Sun Devils have to block out all the external elements from the start, get off to a fast start and not look back. Weather also could be a factor. Graham and his players say they don’t even worry about the weather, but the wrong kind of cold can impact a team whether they like it or not.

Thorpe: I could see it having a big impact. As you said, afternoon classes have been canceled, and I expect the stands will be full of students in costume (mostly pirates). If the Sun Devils can pull out to a big lead early it will likely take the crowd out of the game — especially since crowds at Washington State have a tendency to be much smaller after halftime. Since the game is on Halloween the students will have lots of other options to have a good time if the game isn’t going Washington State’s way. But if the Cougars can make some big plays early, the crowd will only become a bigger factor. It’s up to the team to get the students into it with a good showing, and if they can, the crowd will reciprocate with a big home-field advantage.

2. ASU has one of the Pac-12’s most potent offenses and its defense is coming around. Washington State has one of the conference’s top passing games. What’s one thing the team you cover does that could create problems for its opponent? What could be its advantage?

Lockman: There are a number of things ASU does that could and should create problems for the Cougars, but if I’m going with just one I’ll say quarterback pressure. ASU’s defensive linemen have been salivating at the prospect of a team that passes about 76 percent of the time. That means more opportunities for them to collect sacks and tackles for loss, and that means Connor Halliday will be under heavy pressure much of the day. Halliday is already averaging more than two interceptions per game, and if ASU gets him off balance, he’ll probably throw at least a few questionable balls. Count on ASU’s secondary to be there to pick those off. ASU thrives when it’s getting turnovers, and this season is outscoring opponents 71-35 on points off turnovers.

Thorpe: The Cougars have proven quite adept at generating turnovers on defense. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota hadn’t fumbled the ball all season until the Ducks took on the Cougars, who forced him to put the ball on the turf twice in the first half. Washington State’s secondary has done a great job of getting in passing lanes, and the Cougars are third in the conference with 11 interceptions. If the home team can cause some chaos in ASU’s backfield and generate some turnovers, the offense will have a good shot to make things interesting.

3. Gabe Marks is emerging as one of the conference’s top receivers, as has Jaelen Strong. Assuming Strong is healthy enough to play Thursday and considering all factors, which receiver has more impact in this game?

Lockman: First, I’m not sure how close to 100 percent Strong will be come Thursday, so I think his effectiveness takes a hit as he battles through an ankle injury. Even so, I believe Strong will have a greater impact in this game because I believe ASU will take Marks out of it as they have done with a number of marquee players this season. Taking into account USC’s Marqise Lee, Colorado’s Paul Richardson and Washington’s Bishop Sankey, ASU just seems to have a way of taking the big names out of games this year. ASU’s secondary, ranked second in the Pac-12, should be able to do that to Marks. Strong should also be able to make plays against the Pac-12’s 11th-ranked passing defense, even at less than full speed.

Thorpe: The two receivers have put up very similar stats, with Strong ranking fifth in the conference in receiving yards and Marks coming in at sixth. I would say it’s more likely that Strong has a bigger impact simply because the Cougars love to spread the ball around in the passing game. Washington State coach Mike Leach doesn’t think of “balance” as a mixture between run plays and pass plays but as a measure of different players getting equal touches. It’s entirely possible that a running back leads the Cougars in receptions or receiving yards, or that players such as Dom Williams or Vince Mayle get the most targets. Marks is certainly the Cougars best receiver, but he’s still just one of many potential targets in Leach’s Air Raid offense.

4. ASU is in control of the South but has yet to prove it can win on the road this year. Washington State needs two more wins to get bowl eligible. To whom does a win in this game mean more?

Lockman: As much as ASU needs to prove it can win on the road and maintain control of the Pac-12 South, it probably has a little room for error. That doesn’t mean the Sun Devils don’t need this one, just that it wouldn’t necessarily be a season-killing loss given their one-game lead in the South. So, a win would probably mean more to Washington State. The Cougars would still need another win over their final three games to get bowl eligible for the first time since 2003, but losing this game would mean they’d need two out of three from Arizona, Utah and Washington, which seems a pretty tall order. A win would also be Washington State’s second impressive win of the season, having beaten USC early in the year.

Thorpe: I’d say this game is a bigger deal for the Cougars. Washington State hasn’t qualified for a bowl game since the 2003 season and is finally on the cusp. However, none of Washington State’s four remaining games is a sure thing or even necessarily a likely win. The Cougars will need to surprise people and beat a team they’re not expected to, and there’s no place like homw to pull an upset. While a loss would certainly set the Sun Devils back, it won’t really matter in the grand scheme of things if ASU takes care of UCLA later in the season. This game won’t be the determining factor in whether or not ASU wins the South division, but it could certainly be the game that decides whether or not Washington State ends its bowl drought.

5. Who will win this game, by what score, and why?

Lockman: As much as this one is being billed as a potential trap game with all the unusual circumstances, I still think ASU wins big, by a score 52-28. Washington State’s style essentially plays right into ASU’s hands. There’s not much on defense right now, so ASU should be able to score at will, be it via Marion Grice on the ground of Jaelen Strong and others through the air. A defense allowing 440.1 yards per game already does not seem likely to hold up well against a team averaging 509.1 yards per game on offense. Simple as that. And on the others side, Washington State passes more than anybody in the country, which is exactly what ASU wants. As I mentioned, that should mean more chances for the defensive front to get to the quarterback and more opportunities for the secondary to get takeaways. I do think the Cougars constant passing attack will find enough holes to put some points on the board, as it did against Oregon last week, but the lack of defense will be their downfall.

Thorpe:
(Thorpe’s score prediction will run on Spokesman.com on Thursday) The Sun Devils are favored and it’s easy to see why. While Leach certainly has the Cougars moving in the right direction in his second year of the program, I’m not sure they’re ready to beat a more talented, experienced team like the Sun Devils. Washington State has surprised teams this year, taking Auburn to the wire on the road and beating the Trojans in Los Angeles. But the Sun Devils’ win over Washington showed that Todd Graham has his team playing disciplined football, and I don’t see them making the mistakes that would allow the Cougars to hang around. Washington State will make some big plays and could put the Sun Devils on their heels early, but quarterback Taylor Kelly will rally his team, and ASU should leave Pullman with a win.