With a freshman quarterback and two freshman on the offensive line, all expected the defense to be the factor that would keep Arizona State in football games.Through the first five games that is exactly has panned out with that defense helping the Sun Devils (4-1, 1-1) to two road victories over top 20 teams.
But the biggest test for ASU to date comes on Saturday when Mike Leach’s Washington State Air Raid offense visits Tempe for a 12:30 p.m. showdown on Saturday.
The Cougars (3-2, 0-2) present a unique challenge in the form of senior quarterback Anthony Gordon who leads the nation with 2,146 passing yards and 22 touchdowns. Washington State is averaging 44.8 points, ranking eighth nationally in scoring offense.
The Sun Devils, ranked 18th in one national poll and 24th in the other, have quality athletes and depth in the secondary but that unit will be facing its stiffest test of the season.
“I don’t know if you can to keep them under control, they’re going to move the ball. You can’t worry about yards. It’s more about points,” ASU coach Herm Edwards said earlier this week. “They spread you out. They use every bit of grass on the field. They attack you inside the numbers a lot with the type of routes they run.
“You can go two ways against these guys and you see it. Some people bring pressure and bring five or six guys and try to make him get it out of his hand and when he does that you have to be able to tackle in space. That’s the whole key.”
Both teams had a bye to prepare for the Pac-12 showdown. For ASU, no doubt much of the time has been spent coming up with a game plan to try and neutralize the potent passing game.
The biggest weakness for ASU on defense has been the lack of a pass rush, but that figures to matter less this week because Gordon has a quick release and gets rid of the ball quickly.
Gordon has completions to 11 different receivers but the ball has been evenly distributed with three receivers having between 350 and 28 yards in receptions. The Cougars employ an extra receiver rather than utilizing a tight end.
“We’re going to try and disguise our blitzes and our coverages and get him off his spot,” sophomore linebacker Tyler Johnson said. “We’re going to try and confuse him and force him into bad throws if we can.”
For ASU the bye came at a good time with two of the players the Sun Devils will most need to defend that passing attack coming back from injuries that kept them out of the last game, a 24-17 win at Cal.
Senior corner Kobe Williams saw a streak of 30 consecutive starts come to an end when he missed the Cal game after breaking a bone at the base of his middle finger on his right hand. He was also dealing with a serious migraine headache and was replaced in the lineup by Jack Jones, his former high school teammate.
That injury, which occurred late in the 34-31 loss to Colorado, required surgery but Williams is expected back this week. He returned on Sunday but was in a green non-contact jersey. He said the original plan was to have the hand protected by a club-like covering but he instead opted for a split that will cover the middle three fingers which should give him more range of motion.
“I told them just give me two fingers and I’m good. I’m ready to go,” said Williams, noted by defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales as one of the tougher players on the squad both mentally and physically. “We’re going to have to get a lot of guys to the ball and be able to tackle so we don’t give up extra yards.”
Freshman safety Cam Phillips will return to the lineup after missing a game with a dislocated elbow which will require him to wear a protective brace. He has recorded 27 tackles, four breakups, an interception and a fumble recovery in four games.
Phillips, replaced in the last game by true freshman Willie Harts, concedes he isn’t quite at full speed but isn’t thinking about being limited.
“It’s a mindset thing. I try not to think about,” Phillips said about playing with a protective brace. “I just have to go out there and play. The key for us is to play well in space because they like to stretch the field.”
The one area in which Gonzales and Edwards have been disappointed with the defense is that it has just two interceptions, one by Phillips and the other by Aashari Crosswell. A goal of 20 was set at the start of the season. All are hoping they can put a dent into that total this week.
“Hopefully we’ll have some opportunities because we know they’re going to have the ball in the air,” Crosswell said.