By John Marshall AP College Football Writer
TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona State football team has been in a funk over the past month, its offense stuck in neutral as the losses piled up.
Still, the Sun Devils are in a better place than Washington State.
The Cougars (2-8) have had a tough initial season under head coach Mike Leach. They have yet to win a Pac-12 game and have just two wins overall. Making things worse, star receiver Marquess Wilson quit the team, claiming he was physically, emotionally and verbally abused by WSU’s coaches.
Facing a desperate team and trying to play amid a swirling controversy, the Cougars are going to need all the focus they can get today at Sun Devil Stadium.
“I tell you guys, it’s not a distraction,” Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel told reporters this week. “We’re not worrying about that. We’re not going out on the field and going, ‘Oh man, Marquess wrote a letter (criticizing the coach staff).’ It’s not happening. It’s not reality.”
Washington State hired Leach late last year to revitalize a program that has struggled for several years.
It hasn’t happened yet.
While the fan base was excited about the hiring of a coach known for his offensive creativity, Leach has yet to get his Air Raid offense in full gear, leading to a dismal opening season.
The Cougars managed to beat Eastern Washington and UNLV early in the season to open 2-1, but are winless in seven games since the Pac-12 season started, the latest loss a 44-36 setback against No. 17 UCLA after giving up 30 points in the second quarter.
Distractions or not, the Cougars face a tough test in the desert, playing a team that needs a win nearly as much as they do.
Arizona State (5-5) got off to a great start in its first year under coach Todd Graham, opening 5-1. But, just like last season, the Sun Devils tapered off, losing their past four games during a brutal stretch in the schedule.
Arizona State’s slide started with a 43-21 loss to then-No. 2 Oregon on Oct. 18, followed by losses to UCLA, Oregon State and Southern California, all ranked teams.
The loss to the Trojans, 38-21 last Saturday, left the Sun Devils on the verge of matching last year’s collapse of five straight losses to end the season.
With the seniors playing their last home game and bowl eligibility on the line, they have extra motivation to make sure this season’s losing streak ends today.
“Our guys came in Sunday and know that we don’t have an opportunity to compete for a championship as far as the Pac-12,” Graham said. “That’s disappointing, but we talked a lot about the seniors, talked a lot about this program and where we want this program to be. We have to go get bowl eligible.”
In order to accomplish that goal, the Sun Devils need to get their sputtering offense untracked.
Arizona State ran Graham’s up-tempo scheme efficiently early in the season, churning out yards behind playmaking quarterback Taylor Kelly and a strong running game.
Teams over the past month have figured out how to bottle up the Sun Devils’ running game, forcing them to the air. Without much depth at receiver, Arizona State has struggled to produce the big plays it had early in the season and Kelly’s numbers have gone down without as much help from the ground game.
“As the year has gone on, we have a lot of depth in our best players as far as playmakers at the running back position,” Graham said. “The teams do plan and do look to take away that, and we have struggled to have playmakers on the outside at the receiver position.
“We have to get better there.”