Washington State's revamped defense, prolific offense present a plethora of challenges for ASU football

The Sun Devils will attempt to avenge a road loss in 2015 with a Homecoming victory over the Cougars

Who: Arizona State vs. Washington State

Where: Sun Devil Stadium

When: 7 p.m. PT on Pac-12 Networks

Series: ASU leads 27-14-2 all-time

Last meeting: Cougars won 38-24 on Oct. 10, 2015 in Pullman

The Pac-12 has long been the conference of quarterbacks – from John Elway, Troy Aikman and Jake Plummer to Andrew Luck, Marcus Mariota and Jared Goff.

The tradition of prolific passers out west has even predated the conference’s days as the Pac-10 and Pac-8.

ASU football has also had its share of strong quarterbacks over the years, from Plummer to Taylor Kelly. Though the injuries to redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins (played through an ankle injury against Colorado) and redshirt freshman Brady White (knee, out for the season) have resulted in some slight instability, the Sun Devils (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) under head coach Todd Graham have been defined by the quarterbacks they’ve played against.

Consider the games that many would label Graham’s signature wins at ASU in the last five years – beating Brett Hundley and UCLA to win the Pac-12 South at the Rose Bowl, getting the better of USC’s Cody Kessler and UCLA’s Josh Rosen twice, stifling Stanford’s Kevin Hogan and reducing Notre Dame’s Everett Golson to a turnover-prone mess.

But there was also Luke Falk’s second career start, a game that only those with the utmost concern for ASU’s secondary would have looked upon with disdain.

It’s only fitting that Falk, then a redshirt freshman who in 2014 threw for 601 yards, but also tossed four interceptions, fumbled the ball away and was sacked six times in his second career start in a 52-31 loss in Tempe, will return to Sun Devil Stadium as one of the top quarterbacks in the country. He’ll have his sights on spoiling ASU’s Homecoming, after jumping out to a halftime lead two years ago and briefly threatening to ruin Taylor Kelly’s Senior Day.

“It’s Falk’s third year in the system, so you just see a more comfortable guy who knows where to go with the ball,” said defensive coordinator Keith Patterson.

Washington State, led by eccentric head coach Mike Leach, has been a long time coming. The Sun Devils have dominated the Cougars (4-2, 3-0 Pac-12) winning 10 of the last 12 meetings between the teams – only three of those wins were decided by less than 20 points.

Leach’s accusations of alleged ASU signal-stealing that date back to 2015 resurfaced Tuesday, and though they come across as paranoid and reactionary, his unorthodox methods and unabashed criticism of his own team seems to have helped the Cougars turn a corner.

Washington State won nine games last season (its highest win total since 2003) and already has wins under Stanford and Oregon under its belt. Now, it has a chance to give its rival Washington Huskies a run for its money in the Pac-12 North.

Falk has thrived in Leach’s Air Raid scheme. The redshirt junior has the third-highest completion percentage (71.5) among all FBS quarterbacks, while pursuing a host of school records and accolades. The only two quarterbacks who have been more accurate than Falk are Washington’s Jake Browning and Colorado’s Sefo Liufau – and Falk has completed more passes (211) than Browning and Liufau combined.

For defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, the earlier tests of Air Raid offshoots Texas Tech and California have helped from a coaching and schematic standpoint.

“There’s always differences in personnel,” Patterson said. “But the concepts are quite similar.”

And while Falk is just one of 13 quarterbacks to have surpassed the 2,000 yard milestone this season, he’s relied on a few talented Cougars around him to move the chains. Redshirt junior running back Jamal Morrow doesn’t get his number called often (he recorded more than 10 carries just once in a game this season, against Oregon) but when he does, he can be counted on to average about 6.2 yards per carry (he has 316 total) and 9.2 yards per catch.

Patterson said a common mistake defenses make when facing Air Raid teams is lining up too quickly to match the offense’s tempo. This plays right into Falk’s hands, giving him time to identify the coverage he sees in front of him.

“Our whole game plan is to make sure we put doubt in his mind,” Patterson said. “In what he’s trying to see from a coverage concept.”

Another key to Falk’s success? Having the second-best offensive line in the country, according to Pro Football Focus. The work done by the men in the trenches provides windows of opportunity for an impressive trio of receivers – senior River Cracraft (31 catches for 391 yards) redshirt senior Gabe Marks (40 catches for 337 yards) and sophomore Tavares Martin Jr. (31 catches for 352 yards) – to get downfield in a hurry and gash opposing secondaries.

The Cougars have undergone a transformation on defense, too, that has elevated them from being a West Coast media darling to a legitimate North division contender. Junior linebacker Peyton Peuller, sophomore cornerback Darrien Molton and redshirt junior linebacker Isaac Dotson are team leaders in tackles, respectively, and round out a unit with six returning starters.

“They move, attack and create havoc,” Graham said. “You can tell that the kids play hard, but they are an attacking group.”

Seizing the mantle vacated by ASU, Washington State has become the best run defense in the Pac-12, and its 104.5 yards allowed per game is also good the 12th best in the country. There’s a bit of a drop-off in defending the pass, as the Cougars allow 278 yards per game through the air, though they have recorded nine interceptions. But they have forced 15 total turnovers, second-best in the Pac-12 and ninth-most in the country.

Junior running back Demario Richard and others have praised the Cougars and their ability to fly under the radar in the past, as well as their grit and “scrappy” qualities.

“They’re very aggressive, very fundamentally sound,” Richard said. “They farm their own system. I don’t think they brought in anybody new except for probably a couple new players.”

In order to jumpstart a run game that has stalled out as of late, Graham said that the key for the Sun Devils will be to counter Washington State’s aggressiveness with physicality of their own.

“We need to block better and give our running backs a chance,” Graham said. “We can’t let them overload us in the box. We have about three backs with great heart and determination that we need to give a chance to run the ball."

Reach the reporter at smodrich@asu.edu or follow @StefanJModrich on Twitter.

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