Know Your Foe: Duke vs. Arizona State

The Blue Devils will face off against Arizona State in the 2014 Hyundai Sun Bowl in just three days. To get an idea of who the Sun Devils are, we sat down with the publisher of the net’s largest ASU site for an extended Q&A session.

What was the biggest difference in ASU’s performance between this season’s wins and losses?

Hod Rabino, Publisher of Each of ASU’s three losses has its own characteristics, if you will.

The loss to UCLA was obviously very dominating on the scoreboard, but was also a contest where ASU played evenly for nearly the entire first half, yet a an interception returned for a touchdown right before halftime by UCLA simply shell shocked the Sun Devils for the last 30 minutes. Consequently, the wheels came off quickly as the ASU defense gives up an 80-yard touchdown pass and shortly after special teams gave up a 100-yard kickoff return for a score. The game ended early in the third quarter.

  There was so much talk of how ASU’s game against Oregon State would be the classic letdown/trap game, since the Sun Devils dominated Notre Dame the week before, and unfortunately the Sun Devils did nothing to dispel that theory. A roller coaster performance especially by the offense in the second half sealed ASU’s fate.

The loss to rival Arizona was one that was marred by crucial turnovers on offense and yielding explosive plays on defense that were the difference in a tightly contested game.   

In their wins, we mostly saw a stout defense that didn’t give up the proverbial “cheap plays" and creating  several turnovers, some of them returned for scores as well as giving the offense preferable field position. In those contests the offense was effective with minimal turnovers, if not downright explosive at times. In most of their wins a dominating first half set the tone of the rest of the game.

Who have been the Sun Devils’ most consistent performers?

Wide receiver Jaelen Strong has posted 1,062 yards and ten touchdowns, and out of Strong’s 75 receptions this season, 51 have gone for a first down.

Running back D.J. Foster, who is one of the team’s best receivers as well, is the only active FBS running back with over 1000 rushing yards (1002) and over 600 receiving yards (646) this year. Of his 247 touches this season (188 rush, 59 receiving), 79 have resulted in a first down or touchdown. He has 12 touchdowns on the year.

What is the story about ASU’s QB rotation?

Well, that has easily been one of the most talked about topics this season.

From a passing game standpoint senior starter Taylor Kelly looked less than average in his first three starts, and in the third game of the year was sidelined for three games with a broken foot. His backup, junior Mike Bercovici went 2-1 in his absence and seemed to have reenergized the offense, especially the passing game during his own three starts.

Kelly arguably came back too soon from his injury, and in most of his appearances looked very shaky and turnover prone, and the effects of his injury were evident is less mobility and hesitant decision making. During that time many were calling for Bercovici to spell him and that finally happened in the last game of the regular season against Arizona, where Bercovici came close to at least sending the game into overtime.

Graham announced a while back that Kelly will start, but don’t be surprised if Bercovici makes an appearance especially if the offense is stagnant early on in the Sun Bowl.

Are they more of a big play offense or a methodical 10- or 12-play-per-drive offense?

It’s probably not as big-play of an offense as it was in 2013, and their tempo has decreased as well, but its drives rarely dip into the double digits in plays so it’s much closer to a quick strike offense than it is a meticulous one.  

It sees as though the offensive line has given up a lot of tackles for loss…what’s the story there?

Some of sacks and TFL’s are obviously rooted in the offensive line struggles, but in fairness ASU has faced several opponents with some of the best front seven personnel not only in the Pac-12 but also in the nation. Additionally, some of the sacks Kelly took were due to hesitation and holding onto the ball too long.

What has been the issue with the defense giving up some big numbers to different teams?

It’s a very aggressive unit that lives by the high risk-high reward mantra. Judging by a 9-3 record, it’s an obviously an approach that more often paid dividends than not. But there is no denying that in all of its three losses the opposition has been able to score a couple of long touchdowns in each of those games, as a result of this scheme. The amount of inexperience on defense at times manifested itself with blown assignments and detrimental decision making.

Are there any dominant defensive stars or do they rely more upon the defensive unit as a whole?

Some of the standouts on defense include linebacker Laiu Moeakiola, safeties Damarious Randall and Jordan Simone and cornerback Lloyd Carrington. But as a whole I would say that the defensive improvement after the first quarter of the season was a result of many inexperienced players stepping up and the unit collectively playing better. So even if the usual suspects make plays, it’s probably a result of the whole group playing effective.

Are the fans excited about playing Duke in the Sun Bowl? It seems there’s a bit of a letdown from the various forums…

The let down is probably more playing in the Sun Bowl which less prestigious than other Pac-12 bowls. Having said that, I honestly don't think there is excitement to play Duke. Right or wrong, fans don’t perceive Duke as being an intriguing matchup or the big name opponent they would want to play in a bowl game. In my opinion, you cannot overlook any 9-3 team even if the ACC is considered the inferior out of the Power 5 conferences. But I do know that whatever the fans may be feeling that their belief isn’t shared by the team. ASU had a very disappointing Holiday Bowl game last year against Texas Tech and are resolved to have a better showing this year in the post-season and notch back to back 10-win seasons for the first time since joining the Pac10/12 in 1978.

Where do you see Duke causing problems for the defense?

ASU’s weakness on defense, especially as of late, has been against the run and that has been Duke’s strength on offense. I’m sure the Blue Devils have an effective play action game as a result of the ground attack, and against a generally aggressive Sun Devil defense that at times over pursues that could be one aspect that can benefit Duke. It appears that the Blue Devils have very good pass protection; barely giving up over a sack a game and that can also hinder an opportunistic defense.

Do you have any concerns regarding the Duke defense?

The ASU offense has been very hot and cold in the last three games, so my first thought in this reply is that they have to first and foremost worry about themselves getting back on track and playing to the level they are capable of regardless of the opponent.

Stat wise looks like Duke is more vulnerable against the run, but I can’t say that is an area of the ASU offense that has really clicked on all cylinders as of late. The passing game has had its struggles as well and against a Duke defense that gives up only 204 passing yards a game and averages over two sacks a game, it looks as the ASU passing game may have its work cut out for them.

Which match ups does ASU believe they'll exploit?

On defense I think they will force quarterback Anthony Boone to beat them since the running game for Duke will have be neutralized for ASU to have any success on this side of the ball.

Conversely, ASU will want to establish the run early not only because that is the weakness of the Blue Devils but also to take pressure off Taylor Kelly who has struggled in the last few games. Running backs D.J. Foster and Demario Richard will have to get going early and once Duke commits more players to the line of scrimmage the Sun Devils can find Jaelen Strong in one on one matchups that should favor him.

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