Know Your Foe: The ASU Sun Devils

On Friday night the Missouri Tigers face their first big road test of 2011 traveling to face off against the Arizona St. Sun Devils and invited Sun Devil Digest publisher Hod Rabino to answer Tiger fans questions about ASU

Can you give Mizzou fans an idea of what the game day atmosphere is like in Tempe, and how much of a role has home field advantage played in recent years against non-conference opponents?

A: I really can't say that ASU has had a whole lot of success against quality non-conference opponents at home. You would have to go all the way back to 2004, when ASU beat then #16 Iowa 44-7, to mark such an event. So in that regard history isn't on the side of ASU.

While the Sun Devil fan base is more apathetic and fickle compared to Missouri's and the rest of the Big-12, I do expect the atmosphere on Friday night to be one the rowdiest ones Tempe has seen in a long time. The "Blackout" marketing campaign has energized the team and the community, and even though attendance probably won't be much more than 65,000, I do expect it to be an impressive gameday environment that will definitely give ASU the home filed advantage it expects to have.

 What where you able to learn about how good ASU can be this year based on it's first game being against a D2 opponent in UC-Davis, and did fans expect an even bigger win then they got?

A: Obviously playing a lower caliber opponent such as UC Davis, there is only so much you can take away from that game. Nonetheless, ASU had a 41-0 advantage going into the 4th quarter which was thanks to the starters on both sides of the ball. Head coach Dennis Erickson said that he was disappointed by the second unit, which contributed to the final score being just 48-14, a win that for some was perhaps somewhat modest.

The offense was balanced (225 yards rushing, 300 yards passing) and executed very well. The defense was by and large suffocating with its speed. Penalties and turnovers which plagued ASU in 2010 were kept to a minimum and that was a very positive sign. Special teams, aside from kickoff coverage played at a very high level. Overall, there were some encouraging signs but as I mentioned, you also have to keep in mind who ASU faced while achieving these feats last week. 

There seems to have been a lot of talk and focus about the Sun Devils needing to be more disciplined and focused during pre-season camp. What have you seen to see them improve on this, and does it appear that it has worked early?

A: Ironically, quarterback Brock Osweiler was asked about that just yesterday, and he said that the emphasis on discipline started in January when the team began their winter conditioning workouts and that set the tone for the rest of the off-season, spring practice and fall camp. Having four penalties for 40 yards in their season opener, was very uncharacteristic for the Sun Devils. ASU also had two turnovers which was naturally less pleasing of a stat but again was improvement in the right direction.

If the 2011 season opener is any indication, it appears that ASU won't revert back to its old bad habits of 2010. There is little no doubt in my mind that against an opponent such as Missouri, that ASU will have to play a clean game to have a chance to win.   

It seems like this is being looked at as a program defining game under Coach Erickson. Would that be an accurate portrayal, and on a scale of 1-10 how big is this game being looked upon by ASU fans?

A: The only reason I would rate this game as 9 in importance, is just because it won't affect for good or for bad, the Sun Devils' chances of winning the Pac-12 South let alone capturing the conference championship. Otherwise, this has been a game that has been circled and talked about in Tempe for quite a while. I mentioned the lack of success at home against Top 25 opponents and certainly ASU has a lot to prove in that regard. Even though ASU wasn't a pre-season Top 25 selection in the major pre-season polls, other college football pundits did place them in that group so the Sun Devils would like to live up to those expectations. And as I'm writing this ASU is now ranked #23 in the USA Today poll.

Not that I want to see this theory be proven right or wrong, but a loss to Missouri could be very deflating for this ASU program and possibly thwart its chances for a successful 2011 campaign.

Missouri has been known all pre-season for it's highly touted defensive line coming into 2011. Can you describe the Sun Devils offense line a little bit and how you think they might match-up against Missouri's D-line?

A: This is easily one of the key matchups in this game. ASU returns all five starters on the offensive line and has four seniors in that group. I would be surprised if the Sun Devils' front five would be pushed around on Friday. In ASU's quick strike offense, the line isn't expected to hold its blocks that long in pass protection which generally nullifies its opponents' pass rush efforts. I do feel that the Sun Devils will have to have a balanced offense and it will be interesting if the offensive line will be able to consistently create running lanes against a formidable Tigers' defensive line. 

We are hearing that ASU's defensive line is smaller, but fast and that speed is strength of the defense. What is their overall defensive philosophy?

A: You hit the nail on the head – speed is undoubtedly the trademark of this defense. It does have a mix of bigger and smaller players on its front four, but I'm sure when people see starting defensive end Junior Onyeali listed at 5-11 244 that does kind of skew the perception. However, Onyeali was the league's defensive freshman of the year in 2010 so in his case, size doesn't matter. But again, the overall athleticism of this defense is quite evident in the front seven and makes it very hard to run on. Last week we saw more blitzes than we normally see from an ASU defense and it will be interesting to see what the game plan will be on Friday. The speedy ASU linebackers versus a very athletic Missouri quarterback James Franklin is another key match up, and it will be interesting to see how disruptive it can be for the Missouri offense.

Osweiler had a nice game against UC-Davis completing 73% of his passes. Describe him as a QB and what some of his talents are?

A: Osweiler is probably considered just the fourth of fifth best quarterback in the Pac-12, but there is no denying his efficiency. He has a quick release, good accuracy and his decision making has improved. At 6-8 it's obviously easy for him to survey the field compared to other signal callers. He's not the type of QB that will sit in his pocket for several seconds picking apart defenses, but he's never asked to that in this ASU offense. As a former Gonzaga basketball commit Osweiler has good mobility, although he isn't asked to run the ball all that often. Even though his playing time has been very limited in his first two years at ASU, he exudes leadership and is a very confident player. 

When ASU has the ball on offense, what are some of the names that Tiger fans need to be aware of?

A: You cannot overstate the number of weapons ASU has on this side of the ball. Their featured running back, Cameron Marshall, is one of the best in his position in the Pac-12 and is a perfect combination of power and speed. Fellow running back Kyle Middlebrooks is your classic scat back that compensates for his lack of size with extreme speed and quickness. Jamal Miles had 188 all-purpose yards last week, and while he may do more damage on special teams, he will also line up as a wide receiver and running back and normally have some big plays in that capacity as well.

Gerell Robinson and Mike Willie are tall, physical receivers who create mismatches for any secondary. Aaron Pflugrad, in comparison, is an unassuming wide receiver in stature, but a very good route runner and sure handed player, who scored two touchdowns against UC Davis.

What one player do you look for that needs to be the biggest difference maker in this game in order for Arizona St. to win?

A: I would have to say Marshall. We talked about what a challenge the Missouri defensive line can pose and if ASU can establish a balanced attack Marshall will be a big reason for that. It would be hard for me to imagine an ASU victory without some sizeable contributions form the Sun Devil junior running back.

What do you feel are some of the keys to the game for Arizona State to pull off a victory?

A: Aside from the balanced offense and successfully countering the Missouri defensive line I alluded to, it will be important for the ASU defense to contain Franklin and force him to be a throwing quarterback on Friday. I know the Tigers won't have their starting running back this week, but I still feel that if they can establish that facet of their offense that could be bad news for ASU.

More than anything, ASU has to embrace the extreme hype that is surrounding this home game and not wilt under the bright lights or let their emotions who will probably be running very high cause them to exhibit their old undisciplined ways. 

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