By Jacob Thorpe The Spokesman-Review
PULLMAN — Last year’s game against Arizona State is becoming a distant memory for the Washington State football team, just as fast as the Cougars can possibly manage it.
Even more so than usual, the Cougars are in a hurry to forget last year’s game.
And who can blame the players? From the drama surrounding the sudden departure of star wide receiver Marquess Wilson to the 46-7 final score, it was a pretty forgettable week for the Cougars.
“I remember that that’s last year’s game so we’re focused on this year’s game,” coach Mike Leach said. “This year’s game — we’ve had good practices this week.”
While the Cougars may claim not to recall last year’s pasting by the Sun Devils, they’ll experience a distinct sense of deja vu when they hit the Martin Stadium field and see all those long-forgotten faces. While ASU had 21 seniors last season, not a single Sun Devil was drafted by the NFL, and the team returns almost all of its major contributors.
Additionally, the Sun Devils had just three underclassmen on their fall depth chart. That experience has manifested itself in a disciplined team that ranks fifth- nationally with just 3.6 penalties per game.
“(They’re) predominantly seniors and they’ve gotten better all the time,” Leach said. “They’re a group of guys that have been playing together a long time and they’re playing good this year. Besides their talent, how long they’ve played together has helped them.”
That all goes to say that the Cougars must find a way to beat the very same team that trounced them by five-plus touchdowns a season ago. WSU must improve by a gargantuan amount relative to the boys from Tempe. It can start by figuring out a way to contain Taylor Kelly.
The ASU quarterback torched the Cougars a season ago to the tune of 20-of-23 passing with four touchdowns. While Kelly may not get the national accolades of peers such as Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley, he has been just as critical to his team’s success this season.
A runner as well as a thrower, Kelly earned high praise from Leach last week when he intimated that the ASU quarterback was as good of a leader and a playmaker as anyone in the conference.
Stopping him will be a tall task for the Cougars defense, but fortunately they have some experience against signal-callers of Kelly’s ilk. Auburn and Oregon both utilized mobile quarterbacks, and WSU’s defense was able to find some level of success against each.
“We’re playing these teams better; we have a better understanding of this defense,” linebackers coach Ken Wilson said. “We’ve played really well against Auburn’s quarterback, some really good quarterbacks. We played really well for a long time against Oregon; the breakdowns were just too big.”
Another area the Cougars can hope to have made up ground is in pass protection. The Sun Devils sacked WSU seven times last season and never gave the Cougars a chance to get anything started on offense. While terrors like Will Sutton and Carl Bradford remain, the hope is that the Cougars are better equipped to stifle them this time around.
“We’re bigger, we’re stronger, we’re more experienced,” Leach said. “All of them with the exception of Joe Dahl, all of them have actually played college football. Last year, of the guys we played with, I think John Fullington was the only guy who’d played college football in any significant fashion. So bigger, stronger, and they had a heck of an offseason.”
The Cougars will need to play better in just about every facet to beat the Sun Devils on Thursday night. But if they can pull it off, it will surely be a night the team doesn’t mind remembering.