Now preparing for the penultimate performance of his college career, Arizona quarterback Nick Foles, the driving force behind the Wildcats' best three-season streak in nearly two decades, remains one of to most prolific college quarterbacks in the country but also is not impervious to widespread struggles around him.
Foles, fourth in the nation in passing yards-per-game (361.2) has been forced to remain sturdy despite a completely new offensive line and one of the nation's worst run games. In all, the former Arizona State verbal commit has completed 68.5% of his passes for 3,612 yards with 23 touchdowns.
As the season has continued and Arizona's struggles mounted, Foles' accuracy waned as after throwing zero interceptions in the season's first four games he has thrown at least two picks in five of the last six contests, including a tie of his season high with three throwaways against Colorado last week. Perhaps a product of forced efforts due to minimal productivity around him, Foles will have to be alert as he faces the capable takeaway artists on the Sun Devil defense.
With Matt Scott redshirting and Rutgers transfer Tom Savage sitting out; Bryson Beirne is the emergency quarterback if Foles goes down. On the season, Beirne has appeared in four games with 71 total passing yards.
Senior Keola Antolin (98 carries, 491 yards, three TDs) and true freshman Ka'Deem Carey (78 carries, 333 yards, six TDs) have both had moments of success this season, but clearly not enough to stabilize any balance for the Wildcat offense. Carey has shown the skill set to theoretically have a very bright future, but the 2011 season has been a severe challenge on the ground for Arizona.
Sophomore Daniel Jenkins has had impressive moments as the team's third running back, totaling 129 yards on 24 carries with a touchdown, prompting Arizona fans to have excitement for his future as a pair with Carey.
Big back Taimi Tutogi, a junior, provides 250-pound size to complement Arizona's smaller backs in the backfield. Though he has only carried 23 times for 69 yards, Tutogi is tied with Antolin for second behind Carey with three touchdown runs.
Though potential superstar wide receiver Juron Criner (57 catches, 693 yards, eight TDs) hasn't necessarily had the statistical senior year that many expected of the predicted Biletnikoff Award candidate, Arizona undoubtedly has a crop of starting receivers that consists of athletes equally talented as the next.
Senior Gino Grump likely has been one of the team's overall breakout players, catching 56 passes for 537 yards with one touchdown after posting only 39 yards on four receptions last season. Junior Dan Buckner, a former five-star prospect that began his career at the University of Texas, has played well in his debut season for Arizona by totaling 39 catches for 577 yards with two scores. Seniors David Douglas (56 catches, 537 yards, one TD) and David Roberts (36 catches, 358 yards, two TDs) have also been highly reliable and frequently involved in Arizona's pass game.
The potency of the Arizona receivers isn't limited to its starting lineup, as seven Wildcats have caught at least 20 passes, including redshirt freshman Austin Hill (21 catches, 311 yards, two TDs) and sophomore Richard Morrison (20 catches, 190 yards, two TDs).
Similar to ASU, Arizona makes very little use of its tight ends. Junior Drew Robinson has one catch to his credit this year, while true freshman Michael Cooper, listed as his backup, is absent from the scorebook.
Arizona's offensive line was an immeasurable concern entering the season and though the unit is still far from a strength, improvements have shown.
From left-to-right, redshirt freshman Mickey Baucus starts at tackle, with sophomore Chris Putton beside him and junior Kyle Quinn at center, while junior Trace Biskin and redshirt freshman Fabbians Ebbele are slated to start at guard and tackle, respectively. With the exception of left guard, there has been general continuity among the line as Baucus, Quinn and Ebbele have started all 10 games, while Biskin has started eight.
Behind the starters, redshirt freshman Trent Spurgeon is tabbed as the top reserve at both tackle positions, with redshirt freshman Carter Lees at left guard, junior Addison Bachman at center and sophomore Eric Bender-Ramsay at right guard.
Arizona Offense in a Nutshell
Few aspects of this game are more obvious than Arizona's intentions to take a page out of Washington State's book and pass up and down Frank Kush Field in the hopes of beating down a battered and depleted Sun Devil secondary.
If ASU does not make the necessary adjustments and allows Arizona to aerially move the ball at will, the Sun Devils with be sweating bullets in a gun fight all 60 minutes. However, if ASU can even limit the Wildcats to an "OK" passing performance, the Sun Devils may be able to rest easy.
ASU's best bet is to balance a fierce attack on Foles without allowing blatant soft spots in its pass defense. If Foles can be flustered and the Wildcat run game is bottled, the window opens for Foles to repeat his current string of multiple turnover games.
There's no way to sugarcoat the ‘Cats collective defensive performance this season, as Arizona is flat out bad on ‘D'.
Statistically, of the 120 FBS teams on a national scale, Arizona ranks 106th or worse in tackles-for-loss (106th), pass defense (107th), total defense (109th), scoring defense (110th); pass efficiency defense (112th), red zone defense (112th), and sacks (118th). Adding injury to insult is the fact that the Wildcats may be without as many as three usual starters on the defensive line, likely impairing the team's 81st ranked national run defense and an already ineffective pass rush.
From a personnel perspective, junior Jowyn Ward (seven tackles, 1.0 sack), sophomore Sione Tuihalamaka (11 tackles) and sophomore Justin Washington (18 tackles, 2.0 TFL) are listed as the top three defensive tackles but reports have surfaced that all three are "doubtful" for this week's game. Also doubtful is usual starting end, senior C.J. Parish (30 tackles, 4.0 TFL), the team leader in sacks with 2.0, who is listed behind projected starter, redshirt freshman Dan Pettinato (12 tackles. 0.5 TFL).
If the defensive tackle position is as impaired by injury as reported, look for junior Chris Merrill, a Scottsdale native, and redshirt freshmen Aiulua Fanene and Sani Fuimaono to fill the void. On the year, this trio is largely unseasoned, as the three combine for 19 tackles and 2.0 tackles-for-loss. Opposite Pettinato at defensive end likely will be redshirt freshman Kirifi Taula (20 tackles, 3.0 TFL), who has started the past two games at end in place of Parish but is better suited for tackle but at end by force, and behind him stand senior Mohammed Usman (18 tackles, 1.0 sack) and junior Lamar De Rego (six tackles), both former junior college transfers.
Prompted by an anemic pass rush—on a national scale, only UAB has fewer sacks than Arizona's 8.0—as well as injuries, Arizona has started nine different defensive linemen through 10 games this season.
Due to formation preferences and a lack of available depth, Arizona typically plays only two traditional linebackers, primarily in the form of senior leaders Paul Vassallo, the team leader in tackles (66) and Derek Earls, tied for second on the team in tackles (60) and the squad's leader in tackles-for-loss (six).
Behind the two starters are a pair of newcomers in true freshman Rob Hankins and junior college transfer David Lopez. Both players have submitted limited efforts this year into the stat books, though Hankins and his 10 total tackles have shown substantial upside for the future.
At the position that is used either as a linebacker or defensive back, true freshman Tra'Mayne Bondurant (31 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, one INT) has been perhaps Arizona's biggest surprise story of the year as he has played much bigger than his 5-foot-10, 185-pound size and much smarter than his first-year status. At that spot, Avondale native and redshirt freshman Jourdan Grandon and true freshman Hank Hobson are depth players.
Arizona's secondary has been a mystery this season, as two seniors and two talented sophomores form the starting lineup but have been largely ineffective. To the Wildcats' credit, two potential starters in safety Adam Hall and cornerback Jonathan McKnight have been unavailable this season, but the unit as a whole is an unexcused disappointment nonetheless.
With Hall's injury, senior Robert Golden (56 tackles, four pass breakups, one INT) switched from cornerback, where he pairs with sophomore Marquis Flowers, a Goodyear native (60 tackles, 3.0 TFL, one INT). In the absence of McKnight and with Golden's move, sophomore Shaquille Richardson (41 tackles, team-high three INT) and senior Trevin Wade (43 tackles, two INT) have been the consistent starting pair.
Further down the depth chart, senior Lyle Brown (14 tackles) and true freshman Cortez Johnson (15 tackles) are the backups and cornerback with junior Mark Watley (25 tackles, one INT) and redshirt freshman Jared Tevis (eight tackles) at safety. Johnson earned his second career start last week at Colorado with Wade out of the lineup, but is expected to be back as a reserve against ASU.
Arizona Defense in a Nutshell
Arizona likely will use players such as Bondurant to creatively attack the Sun Devil backfield, but the Wildcats as a whole will entirely need a cliché "Win one for the Gipper" type of performance to consistently disrupt the Sun Devil offense.
ASU could theoretically have a marked advantage in the trenches, especially if Arizona's defensive line remains banged up. If the Sun Devils can rebound from a poor outing in the run game, ASU should be able to ultimately bait the Wildcats into allowing openings in the pass game for Brock Osweiler to exploit.
Though events typically do not transpire logically in this rivalry affair, statistics clearly support the Sun Devils' potential to post big numbers in their offensive efforts.
Special Teams Preview
Many fans predicted Arizona would have issues at placekicker, but no one would have predicted that the Wildcats would use the services of three athletes at the position.
After the total meltdown to end the 2010 season—largely accounted to his two blocked PATs against ASU last year—Alex Zendejas was replaced by junior college transfer Jaime Salazar to begin the 2011 season. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Salazar did not prove to be any sort of upgrade, and Zendejas returned to the lineup after three games—only to be benched three games later in favor of the current kicker, John Bonano.
However, this change clearly is the final one as Bonano has been highly efficient, making 6-of-7 field goal attempts and, most importantly, all 14 extra points.
Kyle Dugandzic, a junior college transfer, has had ups and downs at punter, averaging 45.5 yards on 33 punts but also suffering issues such as blocks, bad snaps and other snafus, while Arizona ranks only 95th in the nation in net punting (34.5).
Arizona's return game has been generally lukewarm all year, with Ka'Deem Carey (21.7 avg. on 24 returns) and redshirt freshman Garic Wharton (23.0 avg. on 14 returns) on kickoffs and Richard Morrison (5.5 avg. on 11 returns) returning punts. In total, Arizona respectively ranks 86th and 103rd nationally in kickoff and punt returns.
Objectively on paper, the sole complication for the Sun Devils appears to be limiting Arizona's pass game; however, after last week's effort at Washington State and the general likelihood of unpredictability in the rivalry game, Saturday figures to be much more complex than it seems.
ASU's psyche will be well worth monitoring—will the Sun Devils blast out of the gates with focus and urgency or play apathetically, fearfully or full of other emotions that will impair their play. In many ways, it is logical to believe that ASU is more capable of hurting itself compared to the Wildcats' ability to threaten the Sun Devils.
Bottom line, despite the struggles of the past two weeks, ASU's early season goals still exist in terms of contention for the conference championship. For the sake of their head coach's job security and the sanity of the fan base, the Sun Devils will be well-served to do everything necessary to make an unfortunate example of their rivals from the south. Given the strengths of Arizona's team and the weaknesses of ASU's, however, the Sun Devils will clearly have to showcase marked improvement from last week's effort.
Keys to a Sun Devil Victory
One Thing, But Everything
Ideally, from a psychological perspective ASU would benefit from finding balance between not getting overwhelmed by the importance of this matchup while being motivated by the long-term impact the outcome will have. The Sun Devils can't afford to be paralyzed by the game's magnitude, but also must realize the reality that any chance of salvaging the season—and perhaps Dennis Erickson's career at ASU—must include a win Saturday.
Assuming ASU is unable to clamp down on the Arizona pass game, if the Sun Devils can pressure Nick Foles and fluster him in the pocket, the outcome could still be satisfactory. With quick-strike nature of Arizona's pass offense, sacks are challenging to force, but getting Foles on the run and distracting him may be sufficient, especially in light of his recent string of turnover prone play.
Foot on the Gas
There is absolutely no reason that ASU's offense should be slowed by Arizona's defense, simple as that. After Colorado was able to impose its will against the Wildcats last week, the Sun Devils have no excuse not to move the ball at will and score points in bunches. With Arizona's dynamic pass offense, the Wildcats can make up ground in a hurry, so for ASU to relentlessly attack Arizona's defense will ensure that the ‘Cats offense is kept at bay.