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Washington State Preview

WSU RB Max Borghi is currently the only player in the Pac-12 with 300 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards
WSU RB Max Borghi is currently the only player in the Pac-12 with 300 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards ((AP Photo/Young Kwak))

Between a scorching hot offense and as of late a porous defense, no team in the Pac-12 provides more of a polar opposite picture than Washington State. How will those two aspects affect their contest with ASU? We examine Saturday’s game in Tempe.

Washington State Offense

Following the completion of American icon Gardner Minshew’s one-year career with the Cougar football program it appeared that Washington State would yet again strive to strike gold from the transfer ranks as Eastern Washington’s Gage Gubrud opted to spend his final collegiate season in Pullman after throwing for nearly 10,000 yards at the FCS level.

However, in what had to be considered some measure of a surprise, it was fifth-year senior Anthony Gordon who claimed the position and thus far, has maintained the highly productive standard of quarterbacks under head coach Mike Leach.

Gordon spent his true freshman season in 2015 at the City College of San Francisco before joining the Cougar program. From there, he redshirted in 2016 at Washington State did not see game action in 2017 and only appeared in just three games with only five pass attempts.

Despite the significantly limited playing time entering his senior year, Gordon has stepped in as if he were a fourth-year starter this year as he leads the nation in passing yards (2,146), is tied with LSU’s Joe Burrow behind Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa for second nationally in touchdown passes (22) and ranks second behind Burrow in completion percentage among players with at least 150 pass attempts (72.0%).

In four of his five games in 2019 Gordon has thrown for at least 420 yards with a monster game in a losing effort against UCLA in which he threw for 570 and nine – yes, if you missed it, NINE – touchdowns. Most recently, however, Gordon was greatly limited in a loss to Utah in which he threw for 252 yards and two interceptions with a touchdown.

Gordon has thrown four interceptions in the past two games and has six in the past four, so it could be prime time for ASU to ramp up its turnover production. Lastly, Gordon has not proven to be a threat on the ground as he has just 41 net rush yards on 18 carries with no scores.

Due to both his hue and skill set, the comparisons to Christian McCaffrey are not just the proverbial “low hanging fruit”, but legitimate with sophomore running back Max Borghi.

To date in 2019, Borghi is the only player in the Pac-12 Conference with at least 300 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards and is well on his way to another double-digit total touchdown season to follow his 12-touchdown freshman campaign of 2018.

Through five games, Borghi has carried 49 times for 379 yards – an impressive average of 7.7 yards per carry – with four touchdowns on the ground in addition to tying for third on the team with 22 receptions totaling 239 yards with two scores.

The “starting” wide receivers listed on the depth chart can be taken with somewhat of a grain of salt due to the heavy rotation and wide distribution of touches by pass-catchers in Leach’s Air Raid offense.

Statistically, Easop Winston is the team’s leader in total receptions (28), receiving yards (378) and touchdown catches (eight), though Brandon Arconado leads the squad and is among the conference leaders with an average of 88.0 receiving yards per game as he has 352 yards on 25 receptions with one touchdown. Arconado starred in the season’s first few games but missed WSU’s last outing against Utah.

Dezmon Patmon has 22 receptions for 352 yards with three touchdowns and leads the team in yards per catch (16.0). Tay Martin is one of five players on the team with at least 20 receptions, having caught 21 passes for 242 yards with two scores.

Travell Harris (17-229-4), Renard Bell (16-175-2) and Rodrick Fisher (15-211-1) are also good for a few receptions per game.

The Cougar offensive line figures to start tackle Liam Ryan and guard Robert Valencia on the left side and guard Josh Watson and tackle Abe Lucas on the right side with Frederick Mauigoa at center. This group has started all five games together thus far in 2019 and has quite a bit of collective experience as four of the five have at least 17 career starts entering Saturday’s game.

Mauigoa has played in 35 career games with 31 starts, Ryan has played 21 career games with 18 starts, Lucas has started all 18 career games played, Watson has 20 career appearances with 17 starts, Valencia has 18 career appearances with six starts.

Washington State Offense Summary

Per usual, the Mike Leach Air Raid attack creates the nation’s most productive pass offense, as the Cougars averaging an FBS high 450.0 passing yards per game and are tied for sixth nationally in scoring offense (44.8)

In all, Washington State has five players ranging from 21 to 28 receptions and another three with between 15 and 17, so touches will be spread across a wide array of Cougars on Saturday afternoon.

Without a doubt, this matchup presents the greatest offensive challenge that ASU will likely see all year, though Oregon may want to argue that point. The Cougars allow very few sacks (six in five games) and feature more than a half dozen pass-catchers with seemingly similar productivity.

The onus this weekend falls on both the Sun Devil offense and defense, as the offense likely will have to produce a season-high (to date) points total to win while the ASU defense will have to work to limit the nation’s premier passing attack.

Washington State Defense

Upfront, Dallas Hobbs is listed as the starting nose tackle with tackle Will Rodgers III and either Nnamdi Oguayo or Cosmas Kwete at end.

On the year, Rodgers leads the team with 2.0 sacks among his 11 total tackles, while Hobbs ranks second on the team with 3.5 tackles for loss among his seven total tackles with one sack. Oguayo has posted nine tackles including 2.0 for loss, while Kwete has eight tackles in three games.

Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei has started the first five games at nose tackle but is listed with the second team this week. He has five tackles including one for loss in five games.

Willie Taylor III is slated to occupy the RUSH position. Taylor started the first four games of the season and has 12 total tackles on the year with half of a tackle for loss and no sacks.

As has been the case for the first five games in 2019, Jahad Woods, an Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 pick last year, starts at WILL linebacker with Justus Rogers at MIKE.

Woods, one of the most productive tacklers in the league, has a team-high 47 tackles including a team-best 4.0 for loss as well as a team-high three pass deflections. Rogers ranks fourth on the team with 25 tackles with one behind the line of scrimmage.

Washington State typically starts a five-man secondary and this week should feature Marcus Strong or Derrick Langford at one cornerback position with Daniel Isom or George Hicks III at the other. Bryce Beekman starts at free safety with Skyler Thomas at strong safety and Pat Nunn as the Nickel defensive back.

Beekman, Isom, Thomas, and Strong have started all five games thus far while three different players have started at cornerback opposite Strong.

Beekman ranks second on the team with 29 tackles, followed closely by Thomas with 28. Isom has chipped in 24 tackles, Strong has 23, while Hicks has 11 tackles and two pass breakups. Nunn has registered seven tackles and Langford has two tackles on the year. Thomas and Strong also have combined for two of the team’s three total interceptions.

Washington State Defense Summary

Across five games, the Cougars have been roughly a bottom-third defense in terms of FBS rankings by allowing an average of 444.4 total yards per game (105th nationally) including 178.6 rushing yards (91st nationally) and 265.8 passing yards per game (105th nationally) along with 30.6 points per game (100th nationally).

The one saving grace for the Cougar defense has been its ability to force turnovers, with 10 collected through the first five games.

Aside from statistics, with the resignation of former defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys before last week’s bye for the Cougars, Saturday brings the first game in the absence of Claeys from the staff. Will the team rally around its interim coordinator or will the staff shuffling cause further complications on defense for the Cougars?

Washington State Special Teams

WSU kicker Blake Mazza is perfect so far both in field goals (7-for-7) and PATs (29-for-29), while all-conference caliber punter Oscar Draguicevich averages 39.9 yards on 11 punts on the year.

Travell Harris is the team’s primary returns specialist, averaging 25.9 yards on seven kickoff returns and 8.0 yards on two punt returns.

Overall Summary

By dropping its past two contests, Washington State opens Pac-12 play with back-to-back defeats for the first time since 2012. Are the Cougars mentally alright knowing that chaos is the lifeblood of the Pac-12 Conference and suffering an oh-fer in the first two games of league plan may not be a death sentence or is WSU really fat and lazy and not quite the team that spent the vast majority of the 2018 season in the top-10 of the national rankings?

The Washington State offense is what it is and what it always has been and will be under Mike Leach, but that does not at all make it an easy competition for ASU or any defense.

Arizona State’s defense will have to be prepared for the best passing attack in the country and one that uses a diversity of targets, so the Sun Devil pass defense will be tested all 60 minutes of Saturday’s game.

However, Washington State faces what appears to be a breaking point in its season after dropping its first two conference games – including a loss with 67 points scored by lowly UCLA – as well as the resignation of its defensive coordinator after just five games.

Is ASU catching Wazzu at the best or worst possible time? Saturday will tell.

Keys to a Sun Devil Victory

Win the First: In the only other this season game in which ASU has faced an offense with above average firepower, the Sun Devils quickly were found in a two-score hole that proved to be the difference maker in the game’s outcome despite the Devils dominating the final three quarters. Arizona State can ill afford to find itself at a 14-0 early deficit as it did against Colorado and expect to leave with a victory Saturday afternoon.

Under Control: Penalties and turnovers can easily swing the momentum of any game, but the comparison of these two squads coincidentally shows a “high risk/high reward” element to Washington State versus a “low risk/low reward” factor with the Sun Devils.

Simply put, Washington State is one of the better teams in the country at gaining turnovers (tied for 24th nationally with 10 forced) but has broken even in terms of turnover margin by surrendering an equally high total of its own (tied for 92nd nationally with 10 given away). Conversely, ASU has not captured many turnovers (tied for 73rd nationally with seven forced) but has helped its own cause by limiting its giveaways (tied for eighth nationally with four given away).

Also, ASU is tied for 15th nationally by committing just 5.0 penalties per game, while Washington State is tied for 116th by committing 8.2 per game. In a perfect world for Sun Devil fans, ASU will force an inordinate number of turnovers while continuing to limit its own, while having a noticeably favorable margin in penalty differential Saturday as well.

Six, Not Three, in the Red: The Sun Devils should earn several trips inside the red zone (WSU is tied for 96th nationally with 21 red zone appearances allowed in five games), but what could be a major difference maker in Saturday’s game is how often the Devils will have to rely on Cristian Zendejas for relative chip shot field goals instead of punching six points on the scoreboard. On the year, ASU has not been very good in this category (eight red zone touchdowns, tied for 111th nationally); however, Washington State’s red zone defense has struggled to a similar degree in terms of its allowance of touchdowns versus field goals. (14 red zone touchdowns allowed, tied for 101st nationally). With an opposing offense such as Washington State’s, if ASU too often has to trade three for six, the outcome likely won’t favor the home team.

Familiar Faces

· WSU QB Gunner Cruz (Queen Creek Casteel High School), OL Hunter Mayginnes (Chandler Hamilton High School) and DL Cosmas Kwete (Phoenix Central High School) are Arizona natives. Mayginnes was at one point verbally committed to ASU.

· WSU LS David Aldapa attended Pomona (Calif.) Diamond Ranch High School, as did ASU LB/DL Amiri Johnson

· WSU WR Renard Bell, WR Jamire Calvin, and DB Halid DJibril attended Los Angeles (Calif.) Cathedral High School, as did ASU DL Stephon Wright

· WSU DB Matthew Dandridge attended Gardena (Calif.) Serra High School, as did ASU LB Merlin Robertson

· WSU LB Fa’avae Fa’avae attended Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei High School, as did ASU OL Alex Losoya

· WSU CB George Hicks III attended San Bernardino (Calif.) Cajon High School, as did ASU QB Jayden Daniels

· WSU WR Mitchell Quinn attended Honolulu (Hawaii) St. Louis High School, as did ASU OL Ben Scott

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