On Saturday (6:00 P.M., ESPN2), the Arizona State Sun Devils (2-0) invade Faurot Field to take on the Missouri Tigers (1-1, 0-1) in non-conference action. Arizona State comes in under first-year coach, Todd Graham, off of a 45-14 home win over Illinois last week. Last season, the Sun Devils prevailed over Missouri by the score of 37-30 in an overtime thriller at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe (AZ).
It's clear that under Coach Graham, who comes to Arizona State after successful stints at Pittsburgh and Tulsa, the Sun Devils are a significantly different team than the one that Missouri played in the desert a year ago. A fast-rising young coach, Graham speaks of instilling discipline into his team. And, the early returns strongly suggest that this year's Sun Devils are remarkably more disciplined.
Not only are the Sun Devils executing at a high level in all three phases of the game, but their first unit has been flagged just once in each of their first two games.
"I think the key to (winning) is to have poise and discipline and focus," said Coach Graham. "It's hard to do. You have to have a focus and know that you have to focus on the job at hand and not be emotional. That is what affects people on the road, their emotions. I don't think they get as up for the game when they are traveling, and I think they get distracted by their surroundings. I think road games are won in April, June, and July with the work that we've put in there. What we've done up to this point, I don't think has a lot to do with what plays we are calling. I think it has everything to do with the training that the guys go through."
"Arizona State is a very good football team," said Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel, as his team prepared to play the Sun Devils. "They started out great and they're playing really, really well. It's a whole new coaching staff and it's a whole new attitude there. And generally, if you get a couple of wins under your belt, there's a whole new confidence level that goes with that too. They're playing exceptionally well. They're playing very good defense. Offensively, they run a spread offense with their version, you know, of play-action passes. And, they do a really, really good job. Kelly, their quarterback is impressive………………………………………. They're a very, very impressive team to watch. We're expecting a very good team to come in here."
Coach Pinkel was referring to Arizona State's first-year starting QB, red-shirt sophomore Taylor Kelly 6'2" 202, whose passer efficiency rating (188.99) is currently ranked 7th in the NCAA. Kelly's been playing very, very well, as he directs the Sun Devils' up-tempo spread offense.
As a team, Arizona State is ranked in the top 25 nationally in just about every major offensive and defensive category.
So far this season, Kelly has taken about three-fourths of Arizona State's snaps at QB. Red-shirt freshman Michael Eubank 6'6" 233 is getting the rest of the QB snaps for the Sun Devils, most of which have come in the red zone.
Kelly demonstrates good mobility and has been very accurate throwing the football. At this point, he appears to have the better command of ASU's offense. Each QB has packages, or specific sets of plays, within the ASU offense that are designated for him, to take advantage of each of their strengths. Eubank is also very adept on the scramble, but he's more of an actual threat to run the football by design. Eubanks is a powerful runner, and hard to bring down. He also has a strong arm and throws the deep ball well.
The first thing that jumped out at me as I looked at this year's version of the Arizona State offense, is just how crisp and efficient it all appears to be. They're spreading the defense all over the field, and they're running a multiple, fast-paced, balanced attack that features a number of talented playmakers getting the football in space.
Through two games, the Sun Devils are averaging 248.5 yards/game rushing, and 283.5 yards/game through the air. That's right! They're averaging 532 yards of total offense per game!
The offensive execution is another example of the discipline that Coach Graham has been able to instill into the Arizona State program within his first year at the helm.
"These guys really want to win, and I think they understand that what I'm telling them is the truth," explained Coach Graham, talking about his team's disciplined approach. "If our offense does not have negative plays and we don't turn the ball over, we're going to score."
Kelly and Eubank have plenty of talent around them. Senior TB Cameron Marshall and multi-purpose player Jamal Miles are integral parts of Arizona State's offense. Miles is listed as a WR, KR, and PR. But, the Sun Devils' top producers on offense are freshman RB D.J. Foster 5'11" 183, and junior H-back Chris Coyle 6'3" 230. Coyle's 12 receptions for 196 yards and 2 TDs leads the nation in receiving from the tight end position. Foster is a multi-purpose back who is averaging 6.1 yards/carry (52 yards/game), and is the Sun Devils' second-leading receiver, with 3.5 receptions for 52 receiving yards/game.
Foster's back-up, junior Marion Grice 6'0" 199 is Arizona State's leading ground-gainer, averaging 62.5 rushing yards/game (7.8 yards/carry). He's not as much of a receiving threat as is Foster, who is just an excellent receiver out of the backfield.
Kelly and Eubank are really spreading the ball around, with 9 different Arizona State players having at least 1 reception through two games. The top two producers at wide receiver, junior Kevin Ozier 6'2" 196 (2.5 receptions/game, 26 receiving yards/game), and freshman Richard Smith 5'9" 164 (2.5 receptions/game, 22.5 receiving yards/game), are not even the starters at their respective positions.
That last bit of statistical information is significant in revealing the bigger picture for the Sun Devils offensively. Arizona State utilizes waves of backs and receivers in their fast-paced offense. And, the designation of back or receiver is blurred, as backs often line up outside, or in the slot, and receivers like Miles or Smith get carries from behind the line of scrimmage.
One of the biggest differences between Kelly and Eubank, besides their obvious size, is that with Kelly at the helm, ASU typically is snapping the football with more than 20 seconds on the play clock. The pace slows down a little when Eubank comes in, and he is definitely more likely to run the football himself than is Kelly.
In addition to QBs Kelly and Eubank, the Arizona State offense appears to revolve around Foster and Coyle. The Sun Devils move these versatile players around, and put them in motion, and get the football to them in multiple ways all over the field. And, it's all accomplished at a very fast pace, and at a very high level of efficiency.
The Sun Devils average 6'4" and 292 pounds across the offensive line. Through two games, Arizona State has surrendered a total of two sacks. And, they're averaging 7.7 yards/offensive play, 5.6 yards/rushing attempt, and 11.6 yards/pass attempt.
The only negative on offense that I can find through Arizona State's first two games is that they have laid the ball on the ground, losing a total of 3 fumbles. But, neither QB has thrown an interception, so their turnover margin is still a +3 on the season.
The Sun Devils run a multiple defense, as well, with a hybrid DE/OLB (Devil) on the field, as well as a hybrid OLB/DB (Spur). Those two starters, red-shirt sophomore (Devil) Carl Bradford 6'1" 233 (10 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and junior (Spur) Chris Young 6'0" 232 (13 tackles) are both among the teams' leaders in production.
Junior safety Alden Darby 5'11" 188 has a pair of interceptions on the young season, and fellow safety, fifth-year senior Keelan Johnson 6'1" 207 has made 11 total tackles.
Up front, junior DT Will Sutton 6'1" 267 has been very productive, and leads the team with 14 total tackles on the season. Sutton also has 2 QB sacks among his 4 TFLs for the season.
ASU's defensive scheme is aggressive, and they will blitz from anywhere. They will move around a lot prior to the snap. Against Illinois,
I counted 9 players up at the line of scrimmage on one particular 3rd & 7, six of whom ended up rushing the QB, with the others dropping back. And, with so many hybrid, and similar sized players, their personnel lends itself to the zone blitzes, and to moving guys around. They do have one big guy on the nose, in junior Mike Pennel 6'5' 355. He was suspended for the Illinois game, but he'll be back for this week. They also rotate at that spot with freshman Jaxon Hood 6'0" 295 who has already seen plenty of action.
Junior DE Junior Onyeali 6'0" 233 is a quality pass rusher, and a three-year starter.
Fifth-year senior LB Brandon Magee 6'0" 228 will be back for the Missouri game. He's a very important player for ASU's defense, a heady player who is the QB of their defense.
"I am probably more concerned with the depth in the secondary than I am with anything else," explained Coach Graham, who went on to say that they may play red-shirt sophomore RB Deantre Lewis in the secondary.
Against Arizona State, Illinois rushed the ball 50 times for 231 yards in a game the Illini trailed 28-7 at the half, indicative of the Illini's ineptitude in the passing game with their starting QB on the sideline. Clearly, the Sun Devils haven't faced a really high-level offensive team yet this year, which lends a bit of an unknown to the quality of their somewhat undersized, ball-hawking defensive unit. Coach Graham is playing a lot of players on defense. The Sun Devils have 17 players with at least 4 total tackles through their first two games.
[NCAA Ranking in Brackets]
MISSOURI__________________ ARIZONA STATE
411.50 [59th]___ Total Offense___ 532.00 [17th]
181.50 [47th]___Rushing Offense__ 248.50 [23rd]
3____________TDs Rushing__________ 10
230.00 [67th]___Passing Offense_ _ 283.50 [34th]
138.59 [58th]__ Passing Efficiency___ 203.74 [3rd]
4____________TDs Passing___________ 4
41.00 [T-21st]___Scoring Offense____54.00 [7th]
289.00 [26th]___ Total Defense___ 284.50 [24th]
85.50 [26th]___ Rushing Defense__ 159.50 [74th]
2_________ TDs Allowed Rushing_________ 1
203.50 [49th]___Passing Defense___ 125.00 [8th]
125.18 [63rd]__ Pass Effic. Defense___83.20 [9th]
4_________ TDs Allowed Passing_________ 2
25.50 [70th]____Scoring Defense___ 10.00 [12th]
+1.50 [T-18th]_ Turnover Margin_ +1.50 [T-18th]
4 / 2________ Fumbles/Lost________ 3 / 3
1_________ Interceptions Thrown_________ 0
2_________ Interceptions Gained_________ 6
24.33 [30th]___Kickoff Return Avg._ _ 18.00 [87th]
22.88 [7th]____ Punt Return Avg.____ 6.50 [71st]
35.33 [85th]___ Net Punting Avg.___ 35.00 [87th]
3.00 [T-23rd]_____Sacks By_____ 4.00 [T-7th]
1.50 [T-43rd]___ Sacks Allowed____1.50 [T-43rd]
26:35 [103rd]__ Avg. Time of Poss.___ 27:30 [94th]
25.0% [112th]___3rd Down Conv._ 50.0% [T-23rd]
42.9% [T-66th]__4th Down Conv.__100.0% [T-1st]