How has Taylor Kelly been since coming back from an injury?
Rabino: Interesting question because it really has been a roller coaster ride.
Overall, in the five games Kelly played since he came back from his broken foot he’s 4-1. He has completed 86 of 154 passes for 1,105 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. So not horrible stats, but not too impressive either. Two of his five interceptions were returned for touchdowns, but last week versus Washington State he threw for four touchdowns and had no turnovers.
There is no question that his passing skills have regressed from last year and that he overly targets Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster, which at times makes life easier for opposing defenses to scheme against. I can’t say that he is the sole reason for the disappointing and potentially devastating loss against Oregon State, but he certainly wasn’t even just average in that game either.
ASU coaches and fans alike hope that on Friday he can build on his performance against the Cougars, which is probably his best, and certainly the cleanest, performance of the year.
Has Todd Graham's blitzing strategy worked and has he tinkered with it at all?
Rabino: Worked like a charm against Notre Dame and backfired against Oregon State. Against Washington State, the blitz was less aggressive than the previous two matches but still very effective, especially facing a spread offense. So the staff isn’t opposed to tinkering and I’m sure they will do the same versus the Wildcats.
Jaelen Strong is one of the best receivers in the country. What makes him so special?
Rabino: Some opposing Pac-12 South corners may disagree, but true to his surname he is plenty physical and hard to defend when he shields the defender from the ball. Strong rarely drops balls and has very strong hands. He doesn’t get enough credit for his speed, but he can elude defenders when needed. Does a great job keeping his feet inbounds, a crucial skill since so many of his receptions are near the sidelines. All in all, just a classic go-to receiver that almost always delivers the first down and/or the big play.
The Oregon State loss was a surprising one. What did the Beavers do that was so successful?
Rabino: In a nut shell, their staff won the chess match. They made the ASU defense pay for its aggression early on with two long touchdowns runs of 78 and 66 yards. Even though the Beavers were down 10 at halftime they made great adjustments to begin the second half where they started attacking the defense in the air, and on the other side of the ball forced Kelly to beat them with his arm, which he didn't. Just one of those games where Oregon State couldn’t do any wrong and ASU couldn’t do any right.
In what areas does ASU have the advantage over Arizona?
Rabino: While I wouldn’t necessarily call the Arizona defense weak, I don’t think it’s even middle of the pack unit either in the league, and if the Sun Devil offense just plays up to its capabilities I really think it can exploit Arizona and it does has experience on its side. Other than that I don’t know if ASU has a distinct advantage anywhere else.
In terms of expectations, how have the Sun Devils been?
Rabino: Much like Arizona, I don’t think anyone expected ASU to be 9-2 and still be battling for the Pac-12 South championship in the last week of the regular season. The offense has been disappointing at times with its output, especially in the air. On the other hand, the defense has been an enormous surprise and at times has carried the team to victory, something you simply don’t expect a group with only two returning starters to do.
We know about Strong, Kelly, and Foster. Who is the next most dangerous guy offensively?
Rabino: That would have to be wide receiver Cam Smith and not only because he had a career game just last week with 131 yards on only six catches and two touchdowns, and doing this while Jaelen Strong was sidelined and not there to divert the attention away from him. Smith is the bona fide downfield threat receiver that really opens up the passing game and loosens up a defense that may be crowding the line of scrimmage.
Marcus Hardison continues to improve. Can you talk about that improvement and what he does well?
Rabino: As we know, Junior College transfers are just true freshmen that happen to be 20 rather than 18 years old, and they usually also have a nasty learning curve as newcomers. Hardison was the norm, not the exception, to this trend and just had to take his lumps as he was learning the ropes in 2013.
His understanding of the defense increased this season and more importantly he got better support from a revamped defensive line that is now more imposing physically than it was in the first handful games of the year. His confidence increased, and he was able to execute his improved technique and mechanics. He’s a perfect combination of size and speed with an array of pass rush moves.
What are the biggest concerns about Friday's game?
Rabino: Making sure that Nick Wilson and the rushing attack is contained, especially if Anu Solomon is sidelined. If the Wildcats are able to achieve the offensive balance as they usually do, it will be a long day for the Sun Devil defense.
On the other side of the ball, it’s still probably anybody’s guess whether Taylor Kelly can string two solid games in a row and as we saw in previous weeks, the path to victory is quite tenuous if the offense heavily relies on Kelly’s arm.