Week 3 Preview: Arizona State

 by Maxwell Brusky 

So I’ll bet you’re wondering just how good this year’s Wisconsin football team actually is – after this weekend, we should have a much better idea what to expect before conference play begins.  At 9:30 CDT this Saturday the Badgers take the field against Arizona State in Tempe (watch on ESPN) for their first “real” challenge of the season.  Here’s what you need to know and what you might ponder before the game begins.

 THE STATE OF THE BADGERS

Well, not much has gone wrong to this point.  The UW offense was able to do what it liked in each game, especially in the second half, and has scored 45 and then 48 points in its two games; it has boasted three 100-yard rushers in each game.  The defense pitched two consecutive shutouts – against spread teams, no less – and has given up a combined total of 325 yards.

There have been mistakes, but they’ve been far from game-changing against this level of competition and should be coachable – quarterback Joel Stave has thrown two dumb interceptions, but both were deep in the opponents’ end; freshman running back Corey Clement fumbled on the very last play of Game 1 (after he went over 100 yards and scored once in his debut); there were five penalties in each game, but other than Southward’s knucklehead block-in-the-back that took away a long Kenzel Doe punt return, none were dramatic (the Jordan Fredrick hold Jared Abbrederis’ bubble screen TD was ticky-tack); and the staff did much to correct subtle, but important gaffes on special teams between Game 1 and Game 2.  The only notable exception has been the placekickers, who already have two missed FGs and a missed PAT on their 2013 dossiers (and I’m referring to “them,” meaning neither guy has seized the job).

Jared Abbrederis.jpg

There have been no major injuries – fullback Derek Watt (hamstring) and inside linebacker Derek Landisch (ankle) were kept out of Game 2, their shoes ably filled by Derek Straus (3 catches, 1 TD) and Conor O’Neill (led team with 8 tackles), respectively.  Watt is probable for Saturday, while word is forthcoming as to Landisch.

Overall, new coach Andersen and has staff are off to a good start. Andersen himself looks to be in charge and is most definitely guarded and highly reserved in his expressed optimism, knowing full well that UW has played likely the weakest slate of any FBS team to this point (certainly that of ranked teams).  Coordinators Andy Ludwig and Dave Aranda have seen their plans, by and large, executed correctly and efficiently.  There have even been several moments of brilliance: the deep balls off play-action by Stave to Abbrederis in Game 1, Stave’s 2-minute drill to complete the first half in Game 2, and defensive stops too numerous to mention – the defensive statistics speak for themselves.

You can look around the web (after reading this, of course) and see quotes from Badger players – they’re saying all the right things.  This isn’t unexpected from Wisconsin’s players as a general proposition (ahem, David Gilbert) but it does speak to the general attitude they’ve absorbed from the environment created by this coaching staff.

So far, the Badgers have largely done what’s expected of them against far inferior competition.  They’re about as ready for the game as can be expected.  From the fan’s perspective, there shouldn’t be any real worry outside of what is healthy and appropriate before an early season road game against a quality intersectional opponent when your team hasn’t really been tested or otherwise had to overcome significant adversity.

THE STATE OF THE SUN DEVILS 

  The Sun Devils enter this game in much the same way as the Badgers will – off a 55-0 shellacking of FCS Sacramento State.  The Hornets were a worthy FCS team that although middling in the Big Sky in recent times, had knocked off Pac-12 teams the past two years (Colorado in 2012 and Oregon State in 2011).  Arizona State, however, endured no drama in picking up its first win of the season (they started Week 1 idle).  Like the Badgers, they are untested.

Also like the Badgers, and perhaps even more so, this game begins for ASU a definitive stretch of games: after Wisconsin, they go on the road for Stanford, return home against UCLA, and then go to Jerry-world to face Notre Dame.  Wisconsin starts Big Ten play against Purdue next week at home, goes on the road for Ohio State, takes a bye, and then host Northwestern for homecoming.  Both teams need this game to start the “real” season on the right foot.

Arizona State is led by Todd Graham, one of the college game’s spread offense auteurs who’s been a part of or led winning teams at just about every stop in his peripatetic career.  His departure from Pitt after the 2011 season was seen by many as mercenary or worse, but his players at ASU appear to have bought in. 

After starting off 2012 5-1 against a wimpy early season schedule, the Sun Devils lost four straight, each to the better teams in the Pac-12.  However, they rebounded to close out with three straight wins, including a domination of lowly Washington State, an emotional see-saw against in-state rival Arizona, and a record-setting romp over Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

In the preseason, many picked Arizona State as a dark horse contender for the Pac-12 South title.  The perception is that they’re well ahead of Colorado and Utah, on a par or even better than Arizona, and if balls bounce the right way for them, they could well overtake the division’s erstwhile premier teams, UCLA and USC. 

Although not in the top 25, ASU has received votes in all the polls to this point in the season. They are presently top vote-getter outside the top 25 in the AP poll.  In other words, Arizona State has reachable designs on an eight to ten win season.

ARIZONA STATE - WHO TO WATCH 

Taylor Kelly.jpg

On offense, ASU’s pass-heavy spread is operated by quarterback Taylor Kelly, who rolled last season to a 67.1% completion rate, 3,041 yards passing, and 29 TDs to 9 INTs.  Against the overwhelmed Sacramento State, Kelly tossed 5 TDs on 300 yards, completing passes to 11 different receivers.  Although not a major part of his game or the ASU offense, he can move in the “dual-threat” style, rushing last season for 525 yards on 133 carries; against Sacramento State, he had only 25 yards on 6 attempts.  While not Marcus Mariota or Brett Hundley, Kelly is one of the league’s top quarterbacks.

Kelly has myriad targets for his passes, including the excellent running backs joining him in the backfield.  The pair, Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, each went over 1,000 total yards last season, and may be the top one-two combo in the Pac-12.  He also has an all-conference tight end in Chris Coyle and several quality wide receivers led by senior Kevin Ozier.  Highly touted JUCO transfers Jaelen Strong (receiver) and De’Marieya Nelson (tight end) both caught touchdown passes from Kelly against Sacramento State.

The offensive line has been shuffled since last year while also only returning two starters. Other than LT Evan Finkenburg, there isn’t an obvious all-league level player in the starting five.  The line is adequate, but not a team strength.

On defense, the top name is Will Sutton, a consensus pre-season All-American tackle who turned down the NFL and has Graham on record comparing him to Warren Sapp.  Sutton is the most well-known Sun Devil and has been their emotional leader – disruptive, menacing and exuberantly intense, he’s a fun player to watch, even when he’s playing against your team.  Sutton is joined on the line by Davon Coleman and Jaxon Hood, both quality players, and a host of rotational players that front an aggressive, shifting defensive scheme.

The front seven features all-league talent Carl Bradford, who plays a hybrid rush-linebacker/end they call “Devilbacker,” and linebacker Chris Young, who was taken off the field against Sacramento State; his status for the game remains unknown.  These are impressive players, but most played major roles in a defense that allowed 183 yards per game rushing last year, bad enough for tenth in the Pac-12.  Their pass rushing was better, racking up a whopping 52 sacks, though 14 of these came against Cal and Washington State.

The ASU secondary is replacing two starters but returned boundary side safety Alden Darby and boundary side cornerback Osahon Irabor, who both have all-league potential.  The replacements on the field side haven’t been tested yet, but should be by the Badger running backs and tight ends.

On special teams, ASU has a few more question marks than Wisconsin, having to replace its top returner and an all-league level punter.  Their placekicker is true freshman Zane Gonzalez, who won the job out of camp by beating out an inconsistent incumbent sophomore and a junior. Perhaps the ASU kicking game will be interesting as Wisconsin’s has been this season and last?

THE MATCH UP 

This should be a back-and-forth affair between two evenly-matched teams.  ASU’s defense is clearly (until proven otherwise) susceptible to strong running offenses like UW’s, especially if the backs can get past the first level of defense.  However, UW’s line will get sternly tested in pass protection.  If the line isn’t up to the challenge Sutton, Bradford and their cohorts present, it will be on Stave to work his way around and through the pressure – and on Ludwig to scheme around and through it.  Any way you cut it though, Stave will need to have a good game for the Badgers to win.

That said, if Stave is given adequate time to find and then hit open receivers (Abbrederis and hopefully someone else, as usual) enough times, and UW is able to establish its generally superlative running game, UW should score enough points to put the game on the Badger defense.  On paper anyway, UW’s offense is at least equal to, and maybe even better than, ASU’s defense.

On the other side of the ball, UW’s front seven, who’ve been great to this point, will have their hands full with Kelly and his constellation of playmakers. Generating a pass rush will be key against an average ASU offensive line – as dangerous as he is in this offense, Kelly can be forced into bad throws and UW should get him to make at least a few during the game.  The real tests for UW’s defense will be to remain disciplined against the varied spread looks ASU will throw at it and to be able to funnel ASU’s outside threats toward inside help, where the strength of UW’s defense, linebacker Chris Borland and safety Dezmen Southward, lies.

Dave Aranda.jpg

Additionally, we’ll get to see if the performance to date of the new players in UW’s secondary – the cornerbacks Darius Hillary, Peniel Jean and Sojourn Shelton and free safety Michael Caputo – was a function of the competition.  One of them may emerge in this game; one or more may be exposed.

No matter what the game brings to the UW defense, it will be interesting to see Aranda implement his schemes and coverages to a fuller extent – and to see if the players can execute them against good competition.  The players have said there’s plenty more that hasn’t been shown and Aranda just looks and sounds like he’s waiting to unleash his controlled insanity on a real opponent.  UW has the talent to stop the ASU offense most times – the question will be whether they will do it enough, and do it enough in the fourth quarter.

            One edge the Badgers might have is the familiarity with the venue, the environment and the region that most of their coaching staff now brings to this game – nearly all of them have coached for or against Pac-12 teams on a regular basis as well as many, many other games in the Pacific or Mountain time zones.  It may not mean a damn thing in the end, but it should be worth at least something against the usual Big-Ten-team-goes-out-west obstacle.

PREDICTION 

Hardly anyone who was playing on or coaching these two teams presently was there in 2010 when UW escaped Camp Randall with a 20-19 victory on Jay Valai’s blocked PAT in the closing seconds.  I expect this game will be similarly contested, but the teams will score more points. 

Each team’s kicker will miss when they need to hit, and there will be turnovers by both teams, but I have a hunch Stave is not only highly motivated and ready to prove the coaches made the right choice with him, but also to throw off once and for all the demons that taunted him last year while he watched UW’s 2012 season unfold from the bench after he was injured.  In the final analysis, UW’s players will feed off the subdued confidence of their coaching staff and walk out of Tempe with a hard-fought victory, in the neighborhood of 37-34.

BONUSES 

  1. If you hear anyone talk about Sparky, that’s the grinning Sun Devil mascot, whose image was almost made over by the ASU marketing department – the plug was pulled because fans and alums though he looked too creepy after the change (more like an actual devil, to be honest).
  2. If the Badgers win, someone will have to make a video to counter the “Stomp the Bus” series of ASU promo/hype videos – here’s the one for the game against Arizona.  If you can find the one of Sparky stomping the Badger team bus, you’re a better researcher than me – it’s out there somewhere.