The Washington State football team has endured a 1-3 start — marked by second-half collapses — and the firing of the head coach and four assistant coaches. And yet with four games left in the regular season, the Cougars are still in the hunt for the Pac-12 North division title.

The Cougars (4-4, 3-2 Pac-12) are just a half-game behind Oregon and Oregon State in the Pac-12 North standings, so there should be no lack of motivation Saturday when they play at Arizona State (5-2, 3-1).

It certainly has been more of a normal week for WSU than it was last week. The Cougars lost 21-19 to Brigham Young last Saturday, just five days after coach Nick Rolovich and the four assistants were fired for not complying with the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Acting coach Jake Dickert watched his team play well against a good BYU team considering the circumstances, and the good news for WSU is that it was a nonconference loss.

It certainly doesn’t get easier with Arizona State, a 15-point favorite Saturday, and Oregon looming, but the Cougars still have a chance to make this a special season.

“I think there’s a lot we can still build on off of Saturday,” Dickert said Monday.

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Dickert said Wednesday that he liked what he saw from his team at practices early in the week.

“The energy and the effort is there; the pride and the passion is there … it’s back to where we should be,” Dickert said.

The Cougars will need to be at their best to beat ASU, which — like BYU — will undoubtedly try to run the ball often against WSU.

Brigham Young had success running the ball against WSU last week, gaining 238 yards on 48 carries and scoring all three of its touchdowns on the ground. The Cougars rank ninth in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, allowing an average of 165.5 yards per game.

The Sun Devils enter the game ranked third in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game at 203.7 per game and have a Pac-12 leading 22 rushing touchdowns.

“It didn’t just show up on Saturday (against BYU),” Dickert said of WSU’s issues with run defense. “I said it after the game, we’ve been a little leaky as the season has gone on, but we’ve been able to make the big play to stop that momentum, so it always felt a little better. … We need to be more aggressive in the core — that D-tackle group and our inside linebacker group — and we need to be more physical, more aggressive, more attacking.”

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Dickert said the key against Arizona State will be forcing the Sun Devils into second-and-long and third-and-long situations.

“We’ve got to win more first downs, and that starts with stopping the run and with me putting our guys in the best position to make plays,” Dickert said.

The WSU offense will face a defense that Dickert said is very similar to Washington State’s in style and scheme. The Sun Devils have made it work, leading the Pac-12 in points allowed (18.9 per game) and yards allowed (321 per game).

It helps WSU that it is another week removed from the big transition.

“It’s definitely gotten a lot smoother,” WSU junior receiver Lincoln Victor said Wednesday. “We’ve transitioned from the adversity that hit us to moving forward.”

Said quarterback Jayden de Laura on Tuesday, “It was tough (losing coaches), but I think we’re back on track.”