PULLMAN — The Washington State football team will take on Arizona State on Thursday night. For all the Cougars care, they might as well be playing the Seattle Seahawks or Pullman High School.
The Sun Devils (5-2 overall, 3-1 Pac-12 Conference) look to be the toughest of WSU’s four remaining foes, a fact that doesn’t seem to concern the home team.
The color and spectacle of the Halloween costumes in the stands will go unnoticed, as will the odd day of the week and the late start time. According to WSU players and coaches, none of those factors will matter, and the team from Tempe, Ariz., is just another in a long line of faceless, nameless opponents for the Cougars, who direct all their focus internally.
“Our world is a tunnel-vision world, and for what we’re trying to instill in our players — the opportunity to get right — it gets back to coach (Mike) Leach’s
philosophy,” defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said. “It’s about us and our ability to worry about the things that we need to take care of. And that’s minimizing hesitations, playing with great effort and being the most excited to play.”
For the Cougars (4-4, 2-3), Thursday night’s game won’t be about stopping ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly, who can damage a defense through the air or on the ground. Rather, it will be about getting four solid quarters out of their own quarterback, Connor Halliday, who has put up big passing numbers this season but is struggling with turnovers.
If you believe WSU’s coaches, the unforgiving ASU defense, which gives up the second-fewest passing yards in the Pac-12 (205.3 per game), won’t be on their minds. Instead, their thoughts will be on whether the Cougars’ secondary can create the turnovers that have become their trademark this season.
That reflective approach is spurred in part by the team’s overall youth. Because WSU is so inexperienced, it doesn’t have time to worry about the other team.
“In our case, what we lack the most is overall experience, so you try to manufacture that between watching film, meetings and practice, that type of thing,” Leach said. “The more you draw out of those things, the more you make up for your lack of experience.”
For WSU to win its second-to-last home game of the season, it must fix a passing game that has produced 19 interceptions, most in the conference.
The Cougars likely will reflect on what to do about a defense that is giving up almost 30 points per game, better than only California and Colorado among Pac-12 foes.
“Just a lack of communication,” linebacker Justin Sagote said of the defense’s issues. “(The) safeties are not talking to us, linebackers not talking to each other, not telling the defensive line where to go.”
Whether the Cougars fix their problems remains to be seen. But if they can’t, it won’t be for lack of trying. The team isn’t thinking about anything — or anyone — else.