Rarely shy to express his opinion, Washington State coach Mike Leach instead refused to address questions about Arizona State after the Cougars’ 37-32 win Saturday night over the Sun Devils in Tempe, AZ.
“Well, I respectfully decline to answer that at the risk of getting a public reprimand or fine, so any questions about them I really don’t plan to answer,” Leach said, giving four variations of the answer each time the topic was broached.
Leach was peeved after being fined $10,000 and reprimanded by the Pac-12 Conference earlier this week for pointing out Arizona State’s alleged stealing opponent offensive signals. ASU coach Todd Graham was apparently upset by being singled out by Leach for a second consecutive year in what Leach claimed was “an unsavory practice.”
After WSU built a 31-14 lead in the third quarter and thwarted ASU’s late rally, Pac-12 Networks microphones caught Graham cursing Leach in the post-game handshake.
“What you did in the newspaper was chickenshit,” Graham said at midfield. “I’ve always respected you, but what you did in the newspaper was bullshit.”
Leach simply walked away.
The Cougars escaped with their first win in Tempe since 2001, snapping a six-game skid. It continued a remarkable seasonal flip after an embarrassing 0-2 start that began with a loss to FCS-level Eastern Washington, followed by a road loss to Boise State. That caused Leach to criticize players for having the mentality of a “JV softball team.”
WSU (5-2, 4-0 Pac-12) has won five games in a row since the rant, thanks in previous weeks to a newfound running attack to aid the passing game. That was nowhere to be found Saturday, however, as the Cougars had 19 rushes for -52 yards. Half of that negative yardage came on WSU’s final drive, when QB Luke Falk ran around, then knelt three times to drain the clock.
Still, Falk was sacked seven times by ASU’s blitz-heavy attack.
“One thing you can always expect from Arizona State is that no matter what, their defense is going to play hard and they’re going to play fast,” WR Gabe Marks said after finishing with eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. “They know how to hit and make it hurt. We’ve just been trying to get prepared for that, because this game through the years is taking a toll. You got to know how to not take all of those hits, ya know?”
Falk was pummeled often during WSU’s scoreless first quarter. The Cougars trailed 14-3 midway through the second quarter when S Robert Taylor cut into the deficit with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. It was WSU’s first special teams touchdown since 2003, when Sammy Moore returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown against Colorado.
“Man, to be honest, it goes by like a blur,” Taylor said. “We had a good game plan going in for kick return. When I saw that green grass, I had to hit it.”
That jump-started the WSU offense.
“I thought it did ignite our side,” Leach said. “I thought the kick return was a very impressive run. The whole kickoff unit I thought did a really good job.”
After failing to throw for a touchdown in last week’s win over UCLA, Falk went 42 of 53 for 398 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. WR River Cracraft caught seven passes for 79 yards, including his 200th career reception. Marks and Cracraft are the only teammates in Pac-12 history to reach 200 receptions.
Early in the fourth quarter, Falk hit Marks on a 52-yard score that put the Cougars up 37-21. The lead held, despite WSU allowing a 70-yard punt return from CB Tim White in the fourth quarter.
ASU starting QB Manny Wilkins was forced to leave the game in the first quarter with an undisclosed injury.
Marks said Leach chastised WSU for not winning by more.
“Come on, you know the guy,” Marks said. “He wants to score 70 every game if he can, which I’m good with that. I want to do that, too. But I’ll take a ‘W’ too. We’re in the Pac-12. It’s hard to get wins.”
The Cougars, the first team ranked after the Top 25 in the Associated Press poll released Sunday, face a struggling Oregon State team Saturday night in Corvallis, then return home the following week to face struggling Arizona.
WSU will be heavily favored in both games as they look to stay in position for a Pac-12 North title that could be decided when they face fourth-ranked Washington in the Apple Cup in late November.