With the Washington State football team making great strides in losing efforts the past month, some prognosticators felt a game against Arizona State might provide the opportunity for the Cougars to earn their first Pac-10 win since 2008.
It didn't quite work out that way.
ASU bounced back from a lifeless defeat at Cal last week with a resounding 42-0 Homecoming win over hapless Washington State, a victory that could build momentum as ASU heads into the stretch run of its season.
It was ASU's first shutout since blanking the Cougars at home on Nov. 15, 2008.
Beginning with a trip to USC next Saturday, the Sun Devils (4-4, 2-3 Pac-10) need to win three of their final four games to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2007.
Washington State (1-8, 0-6) had shown steady improvement in the last three weeks, playing competitively against a trio of ranked teams. But ASU had little interest in being on the short end of a watershed moment for the Cougars, dominating every facet of the game from the opening kickoff.
After forcing a three-and-out on Washington State's opening possession, the Sun Devils marched 76 yards on 15 plays, a drive that ended in a 7-yard touchdown run by Cameron Marshall. Junior quarterback Steven Threet competed 9 of 10 passes on a six-plus-minute drive that was a foreshadowing of the offensive mastery the Sun Devils would employ throughout the game.
Threet, who gave way to sophomore Brock Osweiler after the first series of the third quarter, completed 26 of 32 passes for 300 yards and three touchdowns, showing no ill effects of a concussion that knocked him out the Cal game last week.
"He was very accurate and he had control of what was going on," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. "We went back and looked (at film from) our first four games this week to really look at what were doing. We went back to the basics of our offense."
That offense was able during most of the game to pick apart a porous Cougar defense at will, racking up nearly 500 yards from scrimmage.
The Sun Devils scored on three of their first four possessions of the first half and when freshman Deantre Lewis scampered in from three yards out at the end of an 83-yard, workmanlike drive to make it 21-0 early in the second quarter, it was clear ASU wasn't going to have much trouble disposing of the Pac-10's worst team.
"We just wanted to treat every play as important as it could be," said Threet, who was rarely pressured by the Washington State defensive line. "We just wanted to execute them one at a time."
While ASU found an offensive groove that was markedly absent in the Bay Area a week earlier, so too did the team's defensive unit, which held the Cougars to just eight yards rushing -- the fourth-fewest total allowed by an ASU Pac-10 opponent in the past 14 years -- and registered a season-high five marks.
After humbling performance against Cal, in which the defense yielded 50 points, players on that side of the ball said they were determined to make a statement while playing in front of an announced Homecoming crowd of 44,903.
"We were all embarrassed by what happened (at Cal)," said junior defensive end Jamaar Jarrett, who collected his third sack of the season. "We couldn't let that happen again."
Freshman defensive end Junior Onyeali added to his impressive first-year resume with three sacks and a pair of forced fumbles.
Washington State's first chance to score was thwarted when senior cornerback LeQuan Lewis recorded an acrobatic interception on a fade route in the corner of the end zone. The play was initially ruled an incompletion, but after a review, the officials determined Lewis got one foot down in bounds.
The Cougars tried to get on the board with a 38-yard field goal attempt late in the fourth quarter, but they couldn't corral the snap, fumbling away their last real shot of prevent the shutout.
Erickson was pleased with a defensive unit he said showed pride after being manhandled a week prior.
"When you go through what we went through last week, and unfortunately it happens in college football all the time, character is what it's about," the coach said. "We were determined to come out and play like we're capable of, and we did defensively."
Senior left guard Jon Hargis concluded an inspiring road to recovery on Saturday when he entered the game in the fourth quarter, just six months removed from a surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
"It felt great to get knocked on the ground actually once or twice," the wide-grinning team captain said after the game. "I actually pancaked my (defender), so it was nice to build some confidence back in my knee. It feels nice to be back."
Teammates say Hargis' return has been an emotional lift. They watched him throughout the summer and fall as he used every available moment to rehab and plot a return.
"I was always hoping for the fastest part to come back to," Hargis said. "Doctors told me a month ago that this was the day I was coming back. It was nice to come back this week and help give the team an emotional lift."
All six of ASU's touchdowns Saturday were scored by first- or second-year players. Sophomore Cameron Marshall and freshmen Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks each scored a touchdown rushing (part of an 118-yard rushing effort by ASU), and sophomore Jamal Miles caught two of Threet's touchdown passes.
The performance of some of the team's young players this season is a sign, Erickson said, of a rise in talent infiltrating the program.
"We've got some good young players in our program in all areas, particularly offensively," the coach said. "(The talent) has really improved from where it was."
Middlebrooks was hard to miss Saturday on his way to 64 total yards. His 10-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter, when he made a pair of nifty cuts and broke a tackle, was one of the night's top hightlights.
"It doesn't surprise me because he is that type of an athlete," Erickson said. "When you're as small as he is, you have to have something special, which he has. He gets lost and (the defense) can't find him sometimes."