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(25) Arizona State (5-2) at Washington State (4-4)
Thursday, October 31, 10:30 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: After breaking back into the Top 25, the Arizona State Sun Devils will look to run over the Washington State Cougars when the two Pac-12 squads collide at Martin Stadium.
The Sun Devils rose to as high as No 22 in the Top 25 in early October, but a 37-34 loss to Notre Dame sent them out. Since that loss the Sun Devils have posted huge victories over Colorado (54-13) and then No. 20 Washington (53-24) in consecutive games and are now once again in the national rankings. The honor came despite the Sun Devils being off this past weekend as they sat idle on their 5-2 overall record and 3-1 mark in league play. Thanks to a loss from UCLA last Saturday, the Sun Devils are now in sole possession of first place in the South Division of the conference as they continue the back half of the schedule.
"We're getting better each week. The guys are practicing harder than I've ever seen and preparing more than I've ever seen. As long as we do our job and do what we're coached to do, we're going to have a lot of success," Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly said. "It's different this year. The guys are a lot closer. It's going to be a great season. We just have to focus on Washington State this week and be prepared."
The good news for Washington State is it has already surpassed its win total from a year ago when it went 3-9. However at 1-3 in league play the Cougars are still struggling to make an impact in the Pac-12. Perhaps it wasn't the kind of impression that is felt in the standings but the Cougars certainly made one with their aerial assault in a loss to Oregon last time out. In the contest, Connor Halliday set an NCAA Division I record in passing attempts (89), while completing 58, the second-highest single game total ever.
"I knew we'd thrown the ball a lot. I didn't know how many," Washington State Mike Leach said. "I just want balance among the positions. I don't care if we throw it or run. We'd like to have semblance of balance."
A repeat of last year's matchup between these squads may not be the ideal outcome for a nationally televised contest. Arizona State blasted the Cougars, 46-7, thanks to four passing touchdowns from Kelly. The win pushed the Sun Devils all-time series advantage to 24-13-2.
The Arizona State offense should just be called the Marion Grice show. Grice has been an incredibly versatile running back for the Sun Devils and his ability to find the end zone has been unmatched. Grice has rushed for 553 yards and has scored 12 touchdowns on the ground, while adding 302 yards and six scores on 33 receptions. Grice's 18 total touchdowns are the most by a single player in the country. Grice had 158 rushing yards against Washington, making him the first player for Arizona State to eclipse the 100-yard mark this year.
Grice isn't the only productive player for the Sun Devils, who rank second in the Pac-12 in total offense (509.1 ypg). Kelly clearly has an important role in the scheme, as he has thrown for 2,236 yards and 18 touchdowns on 62 percent passing this season. Kelly has been intercepted a bit too often (seven) and his protection has not always been there as he has been sacked 15 times. However, Kelly can escape pressure as he showed against Washington, rushing for 83 yards and two touchdowns.
The only thing missing from Arizona State's thorough beating of the Huskies was a big game from Jaelen Strong. The Sun Devils' top wideout had just three catches for seven yards. That is quite a dropoff for a player leading the team in receptions (45) and yards (685), while adding four touchdowns. Strong had 100 yards in five straight games entering the contest. D.J. Foster (36 receptions, 390 yards, TD) and tight end Chris Coyle (18 receptions, 302 yards, three TDs) are also important pieces to the offensive puzzle.
The Sun Devils have been one of the more balanced teams in the Pac-12 as they can play defense as well as they play offense. Arizona State is second in the league in total yards allowed (349.3 ypg), with a real skill in slowing teams down through the air. Three different players have at least two interceptions for the Sun Devils, while Will Sutton (5.5 TFL), Carl Bradford (4.5 sacks) and Davon Coleman (7.0 TFL) power a strong front seven.
Leach can say he wants balance all he wants but it is clear that Washington State is not a team that is going to run much, if at all. The Cougars are heavily reliant on the passing attack, as they average 373.1 yards through the air, putting up 431.5 yards of total offense per week.
Halliday is not afraid to air it out, but that has sometimes been a disadvantage. Though Halliday has already racked up 2,798 yards and 18 touchdowns, on a healthy 63.8 percent passing, he has also been picked off 17 times (most in the Pac-12). His record-setting effort against Oregon was a stellar example, as he had 557 yards and four scores, but also turned the ball over four times.
Halliday's favorite receiver this season has been Gabe Marks (59 receptions, 655 yards, five TDs), who had a record-setting game of his own against Oregon. Marks hauled in 13 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown in the losing effort. However, a team that passes the ball this much has plenty of opportunities for other pass-catchers. Eight different players have at least 20 catches on the season with Vince Mayle (21 receptions, 317 yards, five TDs) and Dominique Williams (23 receptions, 376 yards, four TDs) the most dangerous.
Deone Bucannon is well on his way to all-conference honors for the Cougars as the leader of their defense. Bucannon has accumulated a team-high 73 tackles and also has four INTs. No other player on the team has more than 50 tackles, although Damante Horton (31 tackles, four INTS) has managed to match Bucannon as a ball hawk. In all, the Cougars are surrendering 440.4 yards and 29.9 points per game.
It is unlikely that Washington State will need to push Halliday to great lengths again this week. However, against an Arizona State squad that is incredibly deep on offense thanks to Grice and Kelly, matching scores may become a necessity. If the Sun Devils' quick-strike ability can't be slowed by the Cougars, expect another contest where Halliday is trying to throw Washington State back into contention.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Arizona State 48, Washington State 31
10/30 10:39:48 ET