Junior QB Garrett Safron (6-2, 190) returns after earning Honorable Mention All-Big Sky recognition in 2012 and brings experience and versatility to the forefront of the Hornet offense.
A starter since midway through his redshirt freshman season in 2011, Safron put together one of the program's top single-season efforts by a quarterback last year with 2,450 passing yards and 377 rushing yards while completing 61.4% of his passes.
Despite his impressive track record, Safron started the 2013 season in disappointing fashion as he threw for only 192 yards with two interceptions while netting only 19 yards on 15 total carries.
Sacramento State boasts one of the league's better all-purpose athletes at running back in Ezekiel Graham (5-9, 170), who earned Honorable Mention All-Big Sky accolades last season after totaling 1,267 combined rushing and receiving yards. Also a special teams contributor, Graham is used in similar fashion to ASU's running backs and figures to touch the ball numerous times against the Sun Devils.
Against San Jose State, Graham was limited as well, carrying 18 times for only 49 yards and catching four passes for 32 yards.
Backup running back De'Jon Coleman (5-9, 190) carried six times for 18 yards and hauled in a three-yard reception against the Spartans.
At wide receiver, Morris Norrise (6-2, 180), DeAndre Carter (5-9, 185) and Shane Harrison (6-2, 200) are the listed starters when the Hornets operate with three-receiver sets. Norrise claimed Second Team All-Big Sky honors in 2012 after catching 60 passes for 777 yards with seven touchdowns.
Against San Jose State, Norrise was limited to only four catches for 35 yards while Harrison also totaled 35 yards on three receptions. Carter caught three passes for 27 yards.
Sacramento State technically started in a two-tight end set against San Jose State, with Stone Sander (6-4, 230) and D.J. Maciel (6-4, 255) getting first-team reps. Maciel caught a pair of passes for 11 total yards while Sander hauled in a 12-yard reception.
The offensive line is paced by team leader Tyler Worthley (6-3, 330) at right guard, a Second-Team All-Big Sky member in 2012 and the owner of 35 consecutive starts. Elsewhere on the line, Sacramento State boasts some imposing size at each tackle position with a pair of starters standing 6-foot-7 or taller. Against San Jose State, LT Lars Hanson (6-7, 285), LG Derek Nielsen (6-4, 290), C John Wallace (6-4, 285) and RT Aleksandar Milanovic (6-8, 295) rounded out the starting offensive line.
In all, the offensive line had a day it is unlikely proud of as the Hornets netted only 86 rushing yards on 39 carries while they also allowed three sacks.
Offense in a Nutshell
Not unlike ASU, Sacramento State features a quarterback capable of moving outside the pocket and versatile running backs qualified to perform in the run and pass games with equal effectiveness. That versatility, however, certainly did not shine in the season opener for Sacramento State and the Sun Devil defense is certainly leaps and bounds ahead of San Jose State in terms of individual and unit talent on defense.
Against San Jose State, the Hornets lacked any sort of big play abilities as the longest pass of the game went for only 16 yards while the longest rush merely went for 11 yards. A repeat of that minimal productivity would be a killer for Sacramento State as it's unlikely the Hornets would be able to "dink and dunk" their way across Frank Kush Field.
ASU's ability to attack with its front seven figures to prove much to potent for Sacramento State, as it's doubtful the Hornets can effectively account for Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Jaxon Hood, Chris Young and company every single snap. Though the Hornets showcase excellent size and both tackle spots, the big men will have to be limber and mobile to avoid becoming proverbial turnstiles to the aforementioned Sun Devil defenders and their teammates.
Sacramento State's greatest hope must be that ASU is sloppy in its pursuit to the backfield and allows lanes for Graham and Safron to gain yardage – a flaw that ASU suffered from last season and has diligently focused upon eliminating this offseason.
Some potentially intriguing one-on-one matchups exist when Sacramento State has the ball, such as Norrise versus ASU CB Osahon Irabor and possibly Worthley against Will Sutton in the trenches.
Sacramento State typically operates out of a base nickel defense with some solid size up front in a pair of tackles that average about 293 pounds and a defensive secondary with admirable height with four of five projected starters standing six feet or taller.
Last season, the Hornets submitted a below average defense on a national scale as the team ranked 77th in the FCS in total defense (393.6) with a specific weakness in pass defense (100th; 248.6 yards per game).
The Hornets, however, did excel in backfield pressure as they finished tied for ninth in the FCS with 33 sacks and 23rd in tackles for loss with 77 in 2012.
Sacramento State also must replace four departed senior defenders that earned Honorable Mention All-Big Sky recognition in 2012.
Ironically, Sacramento State's strengths and weaknesses flip-flopped on defense in the 2013 opener versus the averages of 2012.
Week one, Sacramento State kept San Jose State's passing game entirely in check in the opener as the Hornets limited QB David Fales—who ranks second among FBS returners in terms of passing yards from 2012 with 4,193 last year—to only 225 yards and a completion rating of 50%.
Also, after a top-10 FCS national finish in sacks in 2012, the Hornets managed only one sack and only one additional tackle for loss against San Jose State.
Against San Jose State, NT Nick Mazza (6-3, 275), DT Nathan Castro (6-1, 310), DE Darnell Sankey (6-3, 250) and RE Trent Eskew (6-3, 255) started along the defensive line with WILL Russell Smith (6-2, 215) and MIKE Todd Davis (6-1, 250) at linebacker. CB Osagie Odiase (6-0, 175), CB Josh Armstrong (6-0, 180), BS Robbie Kendall (6-0, 180), FS Robert Beale (6-2, 185) and NB Markell Williams (5-8, 190) started in the secondary.
In 2012, Odiase earned Second-Team All-Big Sky honors while Davis netted Honorable Mention all-conference recognition.
Four players (Kendall, Williams, Sankey, Davis) tied for the team lead against San Jose State with seven tackles while Smith added five.
Sankey chipped in Sacramento State's lone sack of the game, while DL Jaycee Totty added a TFL in reserve duty.
Defense in a Nutshell
Sacramento State limited high-power San Jose State QB David Fales to what must be considered a greatly disappointing game for him. If the Hornets can duplicate that against Taylor Kelly, the game could be closer than Sun Devil fans would like.
The expectation is that ASU's offensive line—a surprise strength this offseason—should be able to keep Sacramento State's defenders at bay, creating lanes for Marion Grice and D.J. Foster and opportunities for ASU to find openings in the pass game.
If Sacramento State is equally unable to overcome ASU's blocking as it was against San Jose State, the Devils should have a field day with its stable of dynamic running backs and pass-catchers in the short and intermediate pass game.
In the end, Taylor Kelly's experience and knowledge of the Sun Devil offense as well as the top-tier talent of Grice, Foster, Chris Coyle and budding options such as Jaelen Strong, Richard Smith and De'Marieya Nelson, no reason exists that should prevent ASU from chewing up yardage virtually at will.
Special Teams Preview
Sacramento State features a first-year placekicker in Jesse Aguilar, who joined the Hornets this year from the JUCO ranks.
Former JUCO transfer Andrew Weldon returns for his senior season after averaging 42.8 yards on 36 punts for the Hornets in 2012.
Against San Jose State, Aguilar missed both field goals he attempted—a blocked 46-yard attempt and a missed 45-yard attempt—while Weldon had a standout day punting with a 46.8-yard average on five punts with two downed inside the 20-yard line. One can realistically presume Weldon should see his fair share of duty, so a high yardage punting average on his end would be a major asset to Sacramento State.
Ezekiel Graham handled kick and punt returns in Sacramento State's opener with modest efforts on both ends as he totaled 38 yards on two kickoff returns and ran one punt back 10 yards.
Keys to a Sun Devil Victory
No Looking Ahead
Undoubtedly this is a motto that's been preached day-in, day-out this offseason, as the Devils cannot tolerate peeking past Sacramento State to the murderer's row slate that awaits the four games thereafter.
As has been bludgeoned to death in analyzing Sacramento State, the Hornets have not cowered in competition against Pac-12 opponents in recent years, so it is highly unlikely that the visiting team will come to Tempe wide-eyed and full of fear.
Ideally, ASU will come out with major fire in the game's early stages and create an insurmountable halftime lead to enable the majority of the first-stringers to rest in the second half.
Few teams will have great fortunes against the Sun Devil defense in 2013 and the only FCS opponent of the year should theoretically have the worst luck of them all.
Early in the game, the Devils defense must come out with a motivated spark and control the line of scrimmage to dominate the battle for field position. Off the bat, ASU will be well-served to crash down on Hornet QB Garrett Safron and push him to poor decisions while driving Sacramento State backward with tackles for loss and sacks. Presumed pressure up front should create interception opportunities in the secondary, another opportunity for the Devils to shorten the field and created a substantial lead.
Excellence in Execution
Though the caliber of opponent in game one is a drastic difference from games two through five, ASU should enter the opener with the poise and focus that Sacramento State is an opponent worthy of a similar game plan to Stanford, Notre Dame and others.
Taylor Kelly and most of his weapons have a full season under their collective belt, so there should be very little learning curve in terms of offensive execution. The Devils should take a page from their own book and mimic the assertion they showed against Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl when ASU processed its way downfield at will against a team with inferior overall athletes.
Credit should be given when due, and yes, Sacramento State has had an impressive streak against Pac-12 opponents. However, the wins the past two seasons – versus Oregon State in 2011 and Colorado last season – came against Pac-12 teams that combined for a 4-20 record among the two years.
After getting blanked 24-0 by San Jose State to open the season, it may be safe to say that some of the luster has worn off from the Hornets' "Cinderella" capabilities.
The Hornets allowed big performances both on the ground and through the air in their opener as San Jose State's Jason Simpson rushed for 135 yards while Chandler Jones totaled 130 receiving yards on eight catches. Sacramento State didn't help itself out either, as Hornet quarterback Garrett Safron threw a pair of interceptions and the team as a whole committed eight penalties.
Only twice in the first half were the Hornets able to move past the 50-yard line; one possession resulting in an interception and the other in a blocked field goal attempt. If Sacramento State's offense comes out similarly limp against ASU's defense, the Devils will have a marked advantage in terms of both field position and turnover opportunities which could kick start a major ASU lead from which Sacramento State may not be about to rebound.
Though Sacramento State limited San Jose State QB David Fales to a far below average performance, the Hornet offense was unable to make any sort of noteworthy impact against the Spartans.
One slight area of concern is the 24 points scored by San Jose State—a team that ranked among the nation's top-30 FBS scoring offenses in 2012. Certainly, however, with Mike Macintyre gone from San Jose State to Colorado it's plausible that the Spartans aren't quite what they were a year ago.
In all, the main variable at play here is to what level of "vanilla" the Sun Devils play and how deep into the game the starters will be used. Despite Sacramento State's fortunes the past few years, this is a contest ASU should win by a minimum of four touchdowns while allowing well below 20 points.
ASU Injury Report
• FS Marcus Ball is out (shoulder)
• FS Damarious Randall is doubtful (groin)
• Sacramento State WR Joey DePalma and ASU OL Nick Kelly were teammates last season at Sacramento's American River JC