Washington St.-Arizona St. Preview
After defeating four Top 25 teams during a five-game winning streak, Arizona State was in prime position to make a second straight trip to the Pac-12 championship game with a shot at qualifying for the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Coach Todd Graham takes responsibility for his squad losing focus in last week's defeat that may have ruined both opportunities, and he's doing his best to get the 13th-ranked Sun Devils back on track in time for Saturday's home game against Washington State.
Arizona State (8-2, 5-2) reached No. 6 in the CFP rankings after routing then-No. 8 Notre Dame 55-31 on Nov. 8, but it scored only three points in the second half and gave up a season-worst 247 rushing yards in last week's 35-27 road loss to an Oregon State team that entered with a 4-5 record.
The Sun Devils likely are eliminated from the playoff picture and are now clumped with three other teams that have two conference losses in the Pac-12 South.
''When you're sixth in the country and go into a place, you're going to get everybody's best performance. We got Oregon State's best shot and we weren't prepared for it," Graham said.
"I apologized to the players and I apologize to our fans for not having our guys ready, but more importantly for not responding the way I should have. We are going to make sure that it doesn't happen again."
Moving on is all Graham has preached to his players since the loss, choosing to focus on the conference race.
''Heck, we're still playing for a conference championship. We've still got an opportunity to win the South,'' Graham said. ''Win the next two games, I believe we'll be there Dec. 5. That's all we can do. We can't worry about anything else.''
Washington State (3-7, 2-5) should give Graham plenty to worry about, though. It ended a four-game losing streak with a 39-32 win over the Beavers in its last game Nov. 8 as redshirt freshman Luke Falk threw for 471 yards and five touchdowns in his first career start.
Falk replaced Connor Halliday, still the nation's leader in passing yards (3,873) and touchdowns (32), after the senior broke his leg early the previous week against USC.
"They are very explosive offensively and extremely capable of big plays and scoring points," Graham said of the Cougars. "This offense is very different from anything that we have seen so far, and that makes it a very different kind of week for us because they are not something that we are used to."
Falk has thrown eight touchdowns and one interception while completing 70 percent of his passes in three appearances.
"The more experience Falk gets, the better he'll play," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "He's accurate, he makes good decisions. He's good in the pocket and he's more mature than usual. He's one of those guys lurking around at night watching film."
He also has a star receiver to throw to in Vince Mayle, who was named one of 10 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award. Mayle ranks fourth in FBS in receptions (a school-record 86) and fifth in yards (1,152) while adding nine touchdowns.
"The biggest thing this year is he started playing real physical," Leach said. "Vince has worked extremely hard since he got here to develop his skills and it continues to pay off as he improves."
Arizona State has won nine of the last 10 meetings after Taylor Kelly threw for five touchdowns and ran for two more in last season's 55-21 win over the Cougars.
Kelly struggled last week, though, completing only half his 44 passes and throwing two picks. His 57.4 completion percentage on the season ranks just 85th among qualified quarterbacks in FBS.
He may have a better opportunity to get off to a solid start against the Cougars' secondary, which will be missing cornerback Daquawn Brown for the first half after he was ejected for targeting against Oregon State.
Brown, nose tackle Xavier Cooper and linebacker Kache Palacio are the only three defensive players to start each game for Washington State.