The Arizona State Sun Devils are an athletic, talented team and are enjoying the notoriety of being nationally ranked in both major polls. Hod Rabino, publisher of DevilsDigest.com, answers questions posed to him by Illinois fans in this report.
1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your offense?
On paper, ASU does have a very potent and balanced offense with no glaring weakness. However, when playing a very formidable Missouri team the Sun Devils had problems running the ball and converting on short yardage situations. It will be interesting to see if this will occur again versus Illinois. The passing game was clicking on all cylinders last week and I would have to say that this is the major strength of the offense.
Whether it would be the short or long routes, quarterback Brock Osweiler was able to connect with his aerial targets with a high rate of success. The offensive line returns all five starters, but against Missouri did a much better job pass protecting than run blocking.
2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your defense?
The defense is a very aggressive and fast, but against Missouri those traits have caused this group to miss numerous tackles and commit several penalties. Time will tell if those mishaps last week will be become weaknesses during the season or were just an aberration. The strength of this group is clearly the front seven and their ability to stop the run and harass the quarterback. Yet, against Missouri they didn't do a particular good job of either and with the Illinois offense posing the same challenges that Missouri did last week you wonder if the ASU defense will handle their opponent in a more efficient manner.
The secondary came into the season with pretty big question marks and based on their performance last week you certainly can't say that they have silenced the critics. Even though Illinois' bread and butter may be their ground game I expect them to test the secondary early and often.
3. What is your leadership like? Didn't you lose a linebacker considered a strong leader to injury?
ASU did lose linebacker Brandon Magee in fall camp to a torn Achilles and yes he is considered one of the main leaders on the team. Not to minimize Magee's loss, but leadership shouldn't be an issue even in his absence since the Sun Devils have 16 returning starters and over 50 upperclassmen. Their experience is quite evident and I believe it helped the Sun Devils fight the considerable adversity they were facing in a close overtime win against Missouri.
4. How is the team compensating for the preseason injuries?
Luckily for the Sun Devils they are deep at linebacker which helped negate to some extent Magee's loss. Wide receiver T.J. Simpson tore his ACL in the spring, but his position group also had enough upperclassmen to minimize his loss.
On the other hand, the jury is still out on how well the cornerbacks can deal with the loss of Omar Bolden, who like Simpson tore his ACL in the spring. The early season performance of the unit hasn't been encouraging but they did perform quite well in fall camp so the hope is that they can get back on track and perform at that level.
5. Is there concern the Sun Devils may not be able to get up for a game right after a big emotional victory?
That's the million dollar question the coaches and players, as well as the Sun Devil nation are asking themselves these days. The game this week could be labeled as a trap game not only just because the emotional win over Missouri, but also the fact that ASU opens Pac-12 play next week hosting USC, a game that figures to be just as big as the Missouri contest was.
I think a few things can help ASU avoid the letdown. For starters, the Missouri win wasn't a thing of beauty by any stretch and the team knows that they have a lot of stuff to clean up for this week. As I mentioned earlier, the leadership and experience on the team is one of its strengths and you would like to think that this will also factor into the squad not being complacent. Lastly, this a season that is crucial for the future of head coach Dennis Erickson and one where frustrated players would like to break their three-year streak of no post-season play. So for all those reasons mentioned, I think ASU will be able to get up for this game.
6. Does Vontaze Burfict sometimes cause as many problems as he solves by going for the big hit instead of making secure tackles? How consistent is his play?
This question is definitely a valid one after his play against Missouri. It was disappointing to see Burfict (and his teammates for that matter) whiff on so many tackles and over pursue an opponent they know could hurt them with their athleticism. His play was much more consistent the latter half of the 2010 season, so the belief was that Burfict would continue to play much more under control this year. So far, I can't say this has been the case but the contest against Illinois is surely a chance for redemption.
7. What does ASU think of Illinois? What is their biggest concern?
The Sun Devils see some similarities between the Missouri and the Illinois offenses, and since they didn't do such a great job last week against the Tigers I believe that the Fighting Illini's offense has ASU's full attention. Nathan Scheelhaase is obviously a dual threat quarterback and after last week the ASU defense needs to prove that they can successfully deal with such an offensive element.
With Illinois perceived weakness on defense being the front seven ASU should have a chance to run the ball better and they do have very capable group of running backs and as I mentioned an experienced offensive line. On the other hand, the Illinois' secondary could provide a much bigger challenge to the ASU passing game than Missouri did.
Both ASU's kicker and punter are first-year players and that's something else that could be a concern as both will play in their first road game.
8. Does Brock Osweiler have any weaknesses? Strong arm, quick release, good footwork, what if anything is he missing?
To be honest I would have a real hard time pointing out any weaknesses with a quarterback who is ranked 10th nationally in pass efficiency. If I had to nitpick I would actually point to Osweiler's relative lack of experience and his performance on the road. Yes, he did rally ASU to an overtime comeback win at Arizona in the last game of the 2010 season, but that performance could have easily been a disastrous one since the Arizona secondary dropped three first half sure interceptions thrown by the ASU quarterback.
So you can make the argument that the burden of proof of playing well on the road is still on Osweiler, but it's an intangibles' issue rather than a physical or technical one.
9. Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino knows several ASU coaches well and has great respect for them. What do they think of Petrino?
If you're a football coach from the northwest United States you will always be OK and respected in Erickson's book. I have no doubt that the ASU staff holds Petrino in high regard.