PULLMAN — Last year’s game against Arizona State is becoming a distant memory for the Washington State football team, just as fast as the Cougars can possibly manage it. Even more so than usual, the “tunnel vision”-espousing team is in a hurry to forget last year’s game.
And who can blame the players? From the drama surrounding the sudden departure of star wide receiver Marquess Wilson to the 46-7 final score, it was a pretty forgettable week for the Cougars.
“I remember that that’s last year’s game so we’re focused on this year’s game,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “This year’s game — we’ve had good practices this week.”
While the Cougars may claim not to recall last year’s pasting by the Sun Devils, they’ll experience a distinct sense of déj vu when they hit the Martin Stadium field and see all those long-forgotten faces. While Arizona State had 21 seniors last season, not a single player was drafted by the NFL, and the Sun Devils return almost all of its major contributors.
Additionally, Arizona State had just three underclassmen on its fall depth chart. That experience has manifested itself in a disciplined team that ranks fifth in the nation with an average of 3.6 penalties per game.
“(They’re) predominantly seniors, and they’ve gotten better all the time,” Leach said. “They’re a group of guys that have been playing together a long time and they’re playing good this year. Besides their talent, how long they’ve played together has helped them.”
That all goes to say that the Cougars must find a way to beat the very same team that trounced them by more than five touchdowns a season ago. WSU must improve a gargantuan amount relative to the boys from Tempe. It can start by figuring out a way to contain Taylor Kelly.
The Sun Devils’ quarterback torched the Cougars a season ago by going 20 of 23 passing with four touchdowns. While Kelly might not get the national accolades of pass-run peers such as Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley, he has been just as critical to his team’s success this season.
Kelly earned high praise from Leach last week when he said that the quarterback was as good a leader and playmaker as anyone in the Pac-12 Conference.
Stopping him will be a tall task for the WSU defense, but fortunately for the Cougars they have some experience against players of Kelly’s ilk. Auburn and Oregon utilized mobile quarterbacks, and WSU’s defense was able to find some level of success against both.
“We’re playing these teams better; we have a better understanding of this defense,” WSU linebackers coach Ken Wilson said. “We’ve played really well against Auburn’s quarterback, some really good quarterbacks. We played really well for a long time against Oregon; the breakdowns were just too big.”
Another area the Cougars can hope to have made up ground is pass protection.
The Sun Devils had seven sacks against Washington State last season and never gave the Cougars a chance to get anything started on offense. While such terrors as Will Sutton and Carl Bradford remain, the hope is that the Cougars are better equipped to stifle them this time around.
“We’re bigger, we’re stronger, we’re more experienced,” Leach said. “All of them, with the exception of Joe Dahl, all of them have actually played college football. … So bigger, stronger, and they had a heck of an offseason.”
The Cougars will need to play better in just about every facet to beat the Sun Devils on Thursday night. But if they can pull it off, it will surely be a night the team doesn’t mind remembering.