TEMPE, Arizona — In the week leading up to Washington State’s second game under interim coach Jake Dickert, college football pundits had made it clear they weren’t expecting much of a fight from the Cougars against Arizona State.
There seemed to be just too many factors working against the visitors from Pullman. The Pac-12 South-leading Sun Devils were named 16-point favorites coming off their bye week.
Of course, the Cougars felt differently about their prospects.
“A lot of people counted us out, doubted us,” WSU edge Ron Stone Jr. said. “There was never any doubt on our part.”
Still, few could have predicted what transpired Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium.
The underdog Cougars smoked the Devils, piling up a season-best five take-aways — three on ASU’s first 13 plays — and torching the defensive-minded hosts for 28 consecutive first-half points in a 34-21 runaway win.
“We went into this game confident,” said Dickert, who was doused with Gatorade after the game while a sizable contingent of WSU fans drowned out all other noise, chanting, “Go Cougs.”
“By no means did we play the underdog card. We’re confident in our abilities and confident in what we can do. We’re playing good football at the right time of the season, and that’s what good teams do.”
The ultra-resilient Cougars (5-4, 4-2 Pac-12) are a victory away from bowl eligibility after putting together arguably their most complete showing of the season despite their recent coaching turnover.
They made a statement in this one, leading by 27 late in the fourth quarter before a couple of garbage-time Sun Devil scores.
WSU remains in the running for the Pac-12 North crown.
“I think we won this game because we played harder (than ASU),” Dickert said. “That’s an immensely talented team, but our guys were just really excited to play and compete and be out there together and prove who we can be.”
Cougar linebacker Justus Rogers handed WSU possession and momentum immediately with a forced fumble on the Devils’ second play from scrimmage, and safety Daniel Isom stripped the ball away from ASU (5-3, 3-2) again on the hosts’ ensuing snap.
Cornerback Chau Smith-Wade kept the take-away party rolling with a diving interception on the Sun Devils’ following series.
The Cougar defense, a unit known on the national level for collecting take-aways, also produced a turnover on downs and recovered another loose ball — knocked free by linebacker Kyle Thornton — in the first half, keying WSU to a 28-0 edge with about two minutes remaining until intermission.
“We came out hot,” slotback Calvin Jackson Jr. said.
The Cougs’ run-and-shoot offense was a handful in the first half, registering 237 of its 400 yards and gaining an efficient 6.6 yards per play.
Quarterback Jayden de Laura (17 of 27, 234 yards, two TDs, one pick) completed five passes of 20 yards or more before the break and rumbled in from a yard out for WSU’s first score.
He lofted a precise first-quarter pass to Travell Harris for a 28-yard touchdown — Harris’ Pac-12-leading sixth TD catch — and later found Jackson for a dazzling 45-yard scoring strike to take the air out of the homecoming crowd and swell WSU’s advantage to four touchdowns.
Jackson posted a career-high 139 yards, gashing an ASU secondary that too frequently opted for single coverage.
“Let’s take some shots down the field, let these guys go be the playmakers they are, and I think C.J. did that today,” Dickert said.
Deon McIntosh returned from an injury and gave the Cougars a boost, running “with aggression,” Dickert said, and posting 68 yards and a short touchdown on 16 carries. Max Borghi logged 67 yards on 12 attempts as WSU preserved a big lead in a punt-fest of a second half by leaning on the ground game and its superb third-down defense — plus another turnover, an easy pick from Jaylen Watson.
Neither team punted in the first half. ASU couldn’t finish a drive without giving away the ball, and WSU consistently capitalized.
“The guys went out there and made plays. It was just fun to watch,” Dickert said.
“I’m proud of the defense and the five take-aways, but man, the offense took the ball and did what they do, finished drives and scored touchdowns, and played with energy and excitement. I loved at the end of the game when we were running the ball and being physical.”
The Cougars ran for 166 yards on 42 carries — the program’s most rushing attempts in a single game in 11 years.
ASU entered the game leading the Pac-12 in scoring defense (18.9 points per game) and total defense (321 yards per game). It had surrendered more than 400 yards in just two of seven games this season.
The Sun Devils’ offense appeared disjointed, affected by pressure packages from WSU. Mobile ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels was often rushed into hasty passes and confined to short gains when he tried to scurry out of the pocket.
Reflecting on his first win as a head coach, Dickert said it was a “surreal” feeling, “something you dream about.” But as he’s done since being named acting coach, he quickly redirected any credit to the players.
“The team won this game,” he said. “I told these guys they’ve given me more in their love and support and their energy than I can ever give them. What a great team win. I’m just so happy for our players. They’ve been through a lot.”
With three games to go, there are still heads to turn, naysayers to convince.
“There’s no doubt in my mind this was a statement game,” Jackson said. “We have more to show.”