Kelly, ASU Offense Get Set to Take on Huskies

The last few weeks have been a bit of a roller coaster ride with senior quarterback Taylor Kelly sidelined due to a foot injury, yet the Sun Devils have managed to remain in the thick of the Pac-12 South race. With Kelly now finally back to his role starting role, ASU and its offense look to kick off the second half of the season on the right foot against Washington Saturday night in Seattle.

Spend a few minutes trying to figure out what to expect from the Arizona State offense on a week-to-week basis and it’s nearly impossible to predict the outcome. The Sun Devils started out the season as one of the nation’s elite rushing offenses, averaging more than 300 per game on the ground in their first three outings, before struggling mightily against UCLA and USC in consecutive weeks to generate a run game.

Meanwhile, back-up quarterback Mike Bercovici stepped in for injured Taylor Kelly and threw for nearly 1,000 yards against the Bruins and Trojans, two of the better defenses in the Pac-12, to go along with eight touchdowns and just two interceptions - the only two interceptions any ASU quarterback has thrown all season.

Then, Arizona State submits, arguably, its most dominating start-to-finish performance of the Todd Graham era against a Stanford team which statistically boasted the best defense in the country and it makes you wonder...what can we expect to see from the Sun Devils this week as ASU hits the road to take on Washington and yet another stingy Pac-12 defensive foe?


Taylor Kelly to Start Against Huskies

You can’t talk about the Arizona State offense without first addressing the situation at quarterback, where after being sidelined with a foot injury he sustained against Colorado in mid-September, Taylor Kelly re-joined the offense and spilt first team reps with back-up Mike Bercovici this week in practice.

It was also announced earlier this week that Kelly, who showed no signs of being slowed by the injury, will start on Saturday against Washington when the Sun Devils travel to Seattle.

“We’re going to go into this football game and Taylor is our starting quarterback,” said Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell this week after practice. “We’re going to go out there and put together a tremendous plan. I know (Bercovici) will be ready to go, just like he always is.

“When you’re looking at two guys who are that talented that can both make plays, you just have to see what situations arise and what comes up. But I know both of those guys will be ready to play.”

Kelly, a senior, is 21-9 as a starter at Arizona State and helped pace a Sun Devil offense that ranked as one of the nation’s best through the first three games of the season, averaging 47.0 points and 539.0 yards of offense.

“The identity of the quarterback position here at this school is we’re all champions, we’re all hard workers, we’re all guys who are talented,” said Bercovici. “It doesn’t really matter who’s in there under center. My job is that when Taylor was injured, I had to come in and keep this team going on a championship race and now that he’s back, I’m excited to see him get back on the field. The team is excited that he’s getting back here and he’s looking great.

“It’s exciting to see that this is just another game ahead and whatever happens happens, but at the end of the day when we beat Washington, we’re going to come out with a W.”

In Kelly’s absence, Bercovici not only helped keep the Sun Devils afloat, but also helped them maintain their spot atop the Pac-12 South and in complete control of their own destiny in the tight divisional race.

In his three starts, Bercovici completed 92-146 (.630) passes for 1,243 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions while helping ASU defeat both USC and Stanford in the same season for the first time since 1997, which coincidentally was also the last time the Sun Devils defeated ranked opponents in consecutive games, which it also accomplished against the Trojans and Cardinal.

“The thing that I’m excited about, Mike got the opportunity to go out and lead this football team and he did that,” said Norvell. “That’s what his job was. (Bercovici) did exactly what we wanted from him and he helped lead this team to two victories and he’s going to continue to work and get better.

“I believe we have the best two quarterbacks in the country, so that’s a great situation for us. It’s a great situation for the competition moving forward in how we practice every rep, but this football team knows we have two tremendous quarterbacks.”

While Kelly will get the starting nod on Saturday against the Huskies, the potential for Bercovici to make an appearance, whether by design or due to the struggles of Kelly as he works himself back into playing condition, is still very much in play for the Sun Devils.

“It’s really about the situations,” said Norvell. “As we’re moving forward, I’m not worried how Mike will respond when he takes the field. We look at the game plan and put it all together and both of those guys are preparing to play every single snap because that’s what you have to do.

“Whether you’re the one or the two, you’ve got to have that mental approach. My job is just (deciding) how we want to put that together and mix and match that.”


Preparing for a Dawg Fight

In many regards, Washington’s defense is very similar to that of Stanford’s, though the numbers may not tell the same story. The Huskies feature a physical, veteran front seven and some of the nation’s top playmakers on the defensive side of the ball, making them a dangerous and opportunistic group, especially when playing at home.

Through seven games this season, Washington is allowing 24.7 points and 415.7 yards per game to the opposition, although most of that has come against an inexperienced Husky secondary which is allowing 283.4 passing yards per game, 11th most in the Pac-12.

Already this season Washington has had to play four true freshmen in its secondary, including Budda Baker, Darren Gardenhire, Naijiel Hale, and Sidney Jones, alongside junior Marcus Peters, who is second on the team in interceptions with three.

However, what the Huskies lack in their secondary, they more than make up for in their front seven where Washington is third in the Pac-12 against the run (131.9 YPG) and third in the nation in sacks (27)

“They’ve got a tremendous football team and a tremendous defense,” said Norvell. “I think they’re one of the top in the country at getting takeaways. They’re one of the best teams in the country at impacting the quarterback. You look at their front seven and they’re very experienced. I think five of the seven are seniors and the other two are also tremendous players.

“I think they’ve got one of the best corners in the league in Peters out there on the perimeter. They’re built to try to create havoc and force opponents to turn the ball over and take negative plays. The thing we’ve got to do is make sure we don’t give them those opportunities.”

For Washington, it all starts with the play of their linebackers, in particular the duo of Hau’oli Kikaha and Shaq Thompson.

Kikaha, a senior, has registered 44 tackles already this season and is leading the nation in both sacks (12.5) and tackles for a loss (15.5).

“He’s an explosive football player,” said Norvell. “They like to line him up at a few different places but he’s a guy who’s probably very similar to what Carl Bradford was last year for us. He’s a guy who can get to the quarterback. He’s very physical. He’s fast off the edge and you definitely have to account for where he is all the time.”

Kikaha is aided by Thompson who’s tied for 11th in the conference with 53 tackles to go along with three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

The junior has also scored five touchdowns this season, four which have come from the defensive side of the ball, including a 100 yard fumble return in Washington’s win over Cal two weeks ago.

“Number 7, that’s a ball player right there,” said running back Deantre Lewis. “He’s returning TD’s this year too. He has more touchdowns than me. But that’s a great defense.”

“I think you always have to know where he’s at,” added Norvell. “He’s a guy who’s obviously a great playmaker so we’ll have to know where he’s at and trust our eyes and reads and make sure we put the ball in the right place.”

Along the defensive line, the Huskies feature a pair of senior playmakers in Danny Shelton and John Timu.

At 6-2 and 339 pounds, Shelton leads the team with 58 tackles while also ranking fourth in the nation in both sacks (7.5) and tackles for a loss (12.5). Timu, meanwhile, is tied with Thompson for the team lead with 53 tackles this season.

“Their front seven plays hard,” said left tackle Jamil Douglas. “They’ve got some playmakers at linebacker and a really special defensive line that plays hard and physical, so we’re going to have to get after them.

“I think the coach there has a great scheme for them and they’ve been able to make plays in it, so it’s our job to minimize the amount of plays that they’re going to make.”


Protecting the Football

All year long, Arizona State Head Coach Graham has preached ball security to his players, often stating that the team who wins the turnover battle is the team that’ll likely win the game. So far, that mentality has served the Sun Devils well.

Through six games this season, Arizona State has committed just five turnovers, three of which occurred in the Sun Devils’ home loss to UCLA last month.

ASU already has four games this season without a single turnover, something they managed to do just five times over the previous two seasons.

Arizona State’s ability to protect the football will be put to the test this week when it faces a Washington defense that leads the nation in takeaways.

Thanks to an offense that has only turned the ball over three times themselves this season, the Huskies currently carry a +12 takeaway advantage over their opponents.

“They lead the nation in takeaways, so that’s something that we’re emphasizing this week - ball protection, owning the ball, and keeping the ball in our hands,” said Lewis.

A key for the Sun Devils will be establishing a run game similar to their efforts against Stanford last week.

After rushing for just 31 yards as a team against USC, ASU responded with a 114 yard effort against the Cardinal last Saturday, eclipsing the Cardinals‘ average for rushing yards allowed at the time (99.8) in its hard fought 26-10 win.

A big reason for the bounce-back rushing effort has been the recent play of Deantre Lewis, who tallied 47 yards on 10 carries against Stanford to pace the ground attack.

“We wanted to keep their offense off the field and keep our defense fresh for when they had to go out there,” said Lewis. “Offensively, we have a bunch of stamina guys out there, so we’re able to stay out on the field and keep progressing up the field.

“We have an excellent offensive line and we have an excellent backfield. We were like, ‘We’re going to pound the ball.’ We knew we’d come off the field hurting a little bit but it’d feel good after a win, so we all just manned up and ran the ball.”

Lewis also added 46 yards on nine carries and 26 yards on two receptions against UCLA, adding some versatility to the Arizona State offense as the Sun Devils were able to move junior D.J. Foster to slot position more frequently in Kelly’s absence.

Foster, who is just one of two players in the nation this season 600+ rushing yards and 300+ receiving yards, has also caught a pass in all 33 of his career games at Arizona State and is averaging 164.0 all-purpose yards per game this season, second most in the country.

“D.J. is a great receiver,” said Lewis. “He’s a great receiver and a great running back, so if we can use him at both positions, that’s what we’re going to do. It’s nice to spread the field that way.”

“Obviously seeing Deantre and the role he’s been able to take on and be very, very successful gives us a lot of confidence to be able to move D.J. around,” said Norvell.

With Kelly back in the fold, the Sun Devils should have a little more punch in their ground game against the Huskies with a healthy stable of running backs and an experienced quarterback with a history of running an effective read-option attack.

“I think obviously with Taylor, we know that’s a skill-set that’s definitely a positive for him with his legs and how he can extend plays and the different things that he can do,” said Norvell. “I think it continues to bring a different element, just like with every running back that we have. Just like every player has their strengths that they have, I think that can be something that does help our run game.

“We’re going to take what the defense gives us and I thought we did a good job last week. I thought we missed some opportunities in our run game but we’re looking forward to getting those corrected and moving forward.”

In its last 23 games, ASU holds an 18-5 record, the second best mark to only Oregon over that span (19-4). The Sun Devils are 11-1 in their last 12 Pac-12 games and have won their last six conference road contests.

Arizona State and Washington kick off at 7:45 PM PT on Saturday and the game will be televised on ESPN. The Sun Devils are 16-15 all-time against the Huskies and have won the last eight times the two teams have faced each other. ASU has not lost in Seattle since 1997.

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