The teams meet again Saturday, this time in Seattle rather than Tempe, Ariz., with the Huskies having no margin of error in the national race.
No. 10 Washington (2-1, 1-0 Pac-12) lost its opener in Atlanta against Auburn but bounced back to rout North Dakota and post a stifling defensive effort in a 21-7 win at Utah last week.
Arizona State (2-1) followed up a rousing home win over then-No. 15 Michigan State with a 28-21 loss at San Diego State, allowing 311 rushing yards last Saturday night.
“You’ve got to stop the run,” ASU coach Herm Edwards said.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow when people are running the ball on you because there’s hardly anything you can do. Unless you can cause a fumble, it becomes a short game and a long afternoon for you defensively while your offense sits over there and watches the clock being bled down.”
Arizona State, thanks to its work against UTSA and Michigan State, had led the nation in rushing defense through two games.
Washington coach Chris Petersen had a potentially potent ground attack, led by senior running back Myles Gaskin and sophomore Salvon Ahmed, an explosive change-of-pace runner sidelined for much of last week’s game. Petersen said Monday there are “no concerns” about his health this week.
Gaskin delivered his first breakout performance of the season at Utah, gaining 143 yards on 30 carries and scoring on a 38-yard rush.
“If we’re going to give him the ball enough and our offensive line keeps guys relatively covered, he’s going to make his plays,” Petersen said.
“He’s slippery, he’s strong, he’s fast; he’s all those things. We’ve just got to give him a chance to get things started and he’s going to find creases.”
Washington senior quarterback Jake Browning threw an interception for a third consecutive game at Utah, and his up-and-down play in 2018 has contributed to Washington’s low red-zone conversion rate (73.3 percent, No. 113 in the nation).
The aim for Washington’s offense against Arizona State coordinator Danny Gonzales’ 3-3-5 odd-stack defense is to build on the positives from the Utah win. The Huskies managed 5.0 yards per play and rushed for 172 yards against a stout Utes defense.
Arizona State, meanwhile, will be looking for its running game. The Sun Devils, after rolling off 266 yards rushing in the season-opener, totaled just 44 and 36 yards on the ground in the following two games.
The ineffective run game has made the Sun Devils somewhat one-dimensional, evident in quarterback Manny Wilkins attempting 48 and 46 passes.
Wilkins will be testing a Washington secondary that might be the best in the country and is led by safety Taylor Rapp and cornerback Byron Murphy, who has produced a team-best seven pass break-ups through three games.
“Their defense, it’s outstanding, one of the better defenses in college football in my opinion,” Edwards said. “What they do schematically, how they built it, they do a nice job with their secondary. They’re very talented.”
ASU counters with, among others, junior N’Keal Harry, one of the top receivers in the country. He finished with nine receptions against San Diego State, moving into fifth place in school history in career catches (161).
“Big and strong and tough and I think he has really deceptive speed too,” Petersen said. “He’s such a big guy you don’t think he’s going to run like that but then he’ll break the tackle and outrun everybody.”
Arizona State has won 11 of the past 12 meetings against Washington, with the Huskies winning 44-18 in Seattle in 2016.
Washington, trying to at least stay on the fringes of playoff possibility, can’t afford another loss to ASU, like the one suffered last season. Petersen said that game or any revenge angle won’t play a part Saturday.
“I think it’s completely different. That’s the mindset every week,” he said. “It’s not about referencing a game … it’s just like, you’ve got to play. You’ve got to play your best or you’re going to get beat. I just really believe that.”