Washington State was looking forward to this home game for many reasons. The game was scheduled for a Halloween Thursday night. Classes were cancelled so students could pack the stadium and cheer for a Cougars upset. ESPN was broadcasting its first game in Pullman since 1990.
Apparently, Arizona State juniors quarterback Taylor Kelly and junior Devil backer Carl Bradford also circled this game on their calendar in the house they share because ASU's 55-21 win over WSU was their best performances this year.
The roommates used their talents to attack the Cougars, aided by sound schematic strategy by their coaches.
Kelly in the zone
Leading up to the game, Washington State coach Mike Leach was asked about stopping ASU senior running back Marion Grice in particular.
Coming into the game Grice led the nation in scoring with 18 touchdowns. Surprisingly Grice did not score a touchdown. Maybe Leach was too concerned about Grice, because the most impressive ASU offensive weapon was Kelly.
Kelly ended the night 22 of 31 with 275 yards passing, 66 yards rushing and seven total touchdowns. Two of his touchdowns came running the ball, the other five via the air, tying a career high. He threw four touchdowns in the first half alone.
The ASU signal caller came into the game ranked No. 14 in the country in points responsible with 126. After scoring 42 points Thursday, he should be ranked higher by the end of the weekend.
The passing yards and throwing touchdowns can be expected from the Idaho quarterback. But the new trend of Kelly scoring rushing touchdowns continued for the ASU offense Thursday night. He had also had two rushing touchdowns in the last game against Washington.
The reason for Kelly's success on the ground was the zone read option play.
The zone read is the cornerstone of offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's system. Norvell must have seen a weakness in the Cougar defense because from the opening snap the offense ran the same play relentlessly and the Cougars continued to err.
Coach Todd Graham gave credit to Norvell after the offense put up more than 50 points in a game for the third straight time, and fifth time overall in just eight games this season.
"Mike is the best in the business," Graham said. "(He's) the best I've ever worked with because we have a very, very cohesive staff that works very cohesively together."
Throughout the game, Kelly would fake the hand-off to Grice and the inside linebackers would come take the bait. The biggest mistake, the Cougar defenders would make was the defensive ends would crash inside to help on the run fake.
Kelly would then take the ball to the outside and up field for a big gain, or around the goal line, a touchdown.
For the second straight game Kelly used the zone read to get into the end zone. On the quarterback's first two touchdowns, he faked the ball to Grice then slipped by the WSU defense for a 7-yard and then a 6-yard touchdown.
Even Kelly's third touchdown and first touchdown pass was due to the read option play.
Kelly faked to Grice then started to run. Because Kelly had already had so much success on the ground early, the defensive back took his eyes off sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong for a split second to see if Kelly was going to run it. Strong was able to get by the corner and Kelly threw to Strong on the run for an 11-yard touchdown on a slant route.
The zone read helped Kelly toward his career night but Washington State finally took notice after three touchdowns and tried to contain it.
Once the Cougar defense worked to limit Kelly's running options, Kelly stood in the pocket and let his arm do the work.
Again for the second straight week, different receiver stepped up in place of Strong. Besides the touchdown and 35 yards receiving, Strong clearly did not look 100 percent in the game.
Kelly then looked to another receiver to step up.
Sophomore wide receiver Richard Smith had one his best games of his career catching three passes for 79 yards and one touchdown.
It has been no secret Smith has struggled to consistently catch the ball this season. Apparently he just needed a challenging ball to catch to calm his nerves. With just over six minutes left in the second quarter, Smith went deep and Kelly threw the ball a little bit behind him.
Both Smith and the WSU defender got a hand on the ball and Smith was able to fight him off and catch it after tapping it in the air to himself at least twice. Smith then took the ball for a 51-yard touchdown giving Kelly his fifth touchdown of the night.
Bradford said before the game he likes playing a quarterback like WSU junior Connor Halliday because he sits in the pocket.
Halliday probably does not playing against a player like Bradford.
The ASU pass rush expert showed why an air raid offense and a pocket passer going up against an attacking, pressure minded defense can be a dangerous combination.
Bradford finished the night with one sack, one tackle for loss and two forced fumbles, and was forcing the action throughout the first half. He took full advantage of the fact Halliday was not going to scramble and the WSU offense only ran the ball 11 times for two yards.
Graham said when the defense shut down the run, it allowed him to call more aggressive blitzes.
"They couldn't run the ball," Graham said. "When you can't run the ball it makes it tough and then you can get more exotic. Our guys are smart in our system and we're able to do a lot The front four getting pressure on the quarterback, being able to mix our coverages up, I think that was the key."
WSU will throw on any down. As the down changed from one to the next Bradford would move wider, wider and wider from the offensive tackle.
On third downs Bradford would be a 9-techinque far away from the opposing offensive tackle. To make matters worse for the tackle and Halliday, Bradford would angle himself so he would have a direct shot at Halliday.
Halliday had no chance. Besides the tackles in the backfield, Bradford also recorded three quarterback hurries.
At one point in the game Bradford's pressure became crucial. With 12:58 left in the second quarter, ASU was leading 21-7. Another roommate in the house, junior running back Deantre Lewis, coughed up a fumble. The turnover gave the Cougars momentum and a chance to cut the lead to one touchdown.
Bradford stepped up for his high school friend. He pressured Halliday on the first play of WSU's ensuing drive which led to an incompletion. Then on the next play he sacked Halliday for a loss of 16 yards. On third down the Cougars could not move the chains and were forced to punt.
Besides the defensive pressure, Bradford had the second longest rush of the game for ASU. He took fake punt for a 20-yard gain and a first down.
Senior cornerback Robert Nelson said before the game, playing a team like WSU is a dream for a defensive back because they throw the ball so often.
Nelson said the defense wanted to take advantage of the opportunity and force Halliday to throw some interceptions. He accomplished this goal and picked off Halliday in the fourth quarter.
Despite the forced turnover, the secondary should still be concerned after its performance. The Cougars came into the game averaging 377 yards throw the air. Even with unrelenting pressure from the Sun Devil defense the Cougars were still able to gain 300 passing yards.
The main reason for the success was the big passing plays. Halliday hit three different receivers on plays for more than 30 yards.
On WSU's first touchdown of the game, sophomore wide receiver Gabe Marks simply beat Nelson on a quick slant route and took it for a 34-yard touchdown. WSU's last touchdown was set up because freshman wide receiver River Cracraft found open space in the ASU defense and Halliday hit him for a 35-yard strike.
Despite holding the WSU rushing attack to two yards, Graham probably won't be entirely happy with the defensive performance.