By Jacob Thorpe The Spokesman-Review
PULLMAN — The Washington State football team won’t have to deal with the Pac-12 passing leader this week, nor with a pundit-projected first-round NFL draft pick at quarterback. No the Cougars face a far more fearsome opponent at quarterback this week: Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly.
WSU’s defense alone may not be enough to beat the talented dual-threat quarterback. However, they may have a little help from the weather.
Kelly doesn’t have the video game numbers of Oregon State’s Sean Mannion nor the hype of Oregon’s Marcus Mariota — the last two quarterbacks the Cougars faced — but he may prove to be an even greater challenge for the WSU defense. Because while the aforementioned players may terrorize a defense, Kelly gets his whole team involved in the destruction.
“The biggest thing, I think he leads the unit well,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “He makes plays, he’s not a real flashy guy but he makes plays. Of all the guys in this league he may be as good as any of them at leading his unit and making plays at key times.”
The plays were plentiful last season when Kelly completed 20 of 23 passes with four touchdowns in a 46-7 shellacking of the Cougars. A similar performance will spell similar doom for WSU today, so priority No. 1 for the home team has to be containing Kelly.
The weather could help. Temperatures are expected to be about 35 degrees cooler in Pullman than in Tempe, and that big of a drop could make it difficult for the Sun Devils — who are used to playing in the heat — to stay warm and keep their muscles loose. WSU wide receivers are more practiced at catching cold footballs, which are much more difficult to reel in.
ASU coach Todd Graham dismissed the notion that the temperature difference will play a factor, and said that the Sun Devils don’t have any plans to mitigate the effects of the cold via extra warmups, heating equipment, or otherwise.
“We never worry about that,” Graham said. “It’s part of the game. Obviously you’ve got to be prepared for anything but it doesn’t affect us. We’re a run, play-action pass football team and it hasn’t affected us. We’re not worried about it a bit.”
But perhaps the Sun Devils’ coach would do well to be more cautious regarding the temperature. After all, ASU hasn’t beaten a Pacific Northwest team on the road since 2010, and the Sun Devils have gone just 2-10 outside the state of Arizona in November and December in that time period.
The last time the Sun Devils visited Pullman — on November 12, 2011 — quarterback Brock Osweiler completed just 28 of 44 passes, while then-freshman Connor Halliday torched ASU to the tune of 494 yards and four touchdowns.
The last time Kelly played a cold-weather game he had one of the worst outings of his career. On November 3, 2012, Kelly couldn’t overcome a cold Corvallis night, and completed just 22 of 41 passes against OSU for 153 yards. While Kelly added 80 yards on the ground, he couldn’t get the passing game going and averaged a scant 3.7 yards per attempt.
A similar performance would be welcome news for the Cougars, and could be enough to give WSU the victory. After all, Kelly and the Pac-12-South leading Sun Devils may be hot right now, but they still haven’t proven they can handle the cold.