The task of ASU head coach Dirk Koetter and the Sun Devil staff is to make certain that their high-flying team doesn't look past the Tar Heels. It may not be an easy task considering that the Las Vegas line has them favored by nine points.
"If we, in any phase, think that we can take North Carolina for granted, we'll get beat on Saturday," Koetter said on Monday. "We're just not that type of team that can say we're going to go on cruise control for a week and jump back into conference play against Oregon State."
North Carolina head coach John Bunting has a healthy respect for Koetter and what he has accomplished at Arizona State so far this season. "Their coach is a proven winner," Bunting said. "They ran into some better competition last year and that is why they lost their last five games. I think they have some better players this year and he has got them believing. They came from behind to win against San Diego State, they were in a close battle with Central Florida and they beat Stanford big last week."
The Sun Devils began the year with quarterback Chad Christensen (6-2, 199) as the starter, a red-shirt freshman who was the offensive scout team player of the year during his freshman year. Andrew Walter (6-5, 219) started two contests in 2001, but was tapped as the reserve to Christensen. Both quarterbacks have seen action in all five ASU contests, but Walter has emerged as the starter and got the lion's share of snaps against Stanford.
Walter, in his first start for ASU this year, passed for 414 yards against the Cardinal, completing 22 of 37, tossing four touchdown passes against one interception. Meanwhile, Christensen was relegated to mop up duty.
"This kid's (Andrew Walter) a better quarterback," Bunting said on Tuesday. "The other kid's (Chad Christensen) a tremendous athlete -- tremendous athlete -- and may be a little bit better of a runner, although Walter is a good runner also. But Walter has got the real slingshot arm."
Walter currently leads the Pac-10 in passing efficiency, completing 57.3 percent of his passes (47 of 82) for 807 yards and has tossed 12 touchdowns in five games.
Shaun McDonald (5-9, 172) has emerged in his junior season as the leading receiver in the Pac-10, with 528 receiving yards, 105 yards per game, 31 catches, and has eight touchdown catches in only five contests. Besides McDonald, ASU plays several other receivers, and Derek Hagan (6-0, 199) checks in next with only nine catches so far this season. Oft-injured sophomore Daryl Lightfoot (5-9, 160) has six catches and caught a touchdown pass last week. The Sun Devils also throw to their tight end, Mike Pinkard (6-5, 264), a senior who has two touchdown grabs this season.
"They have a receiver that's caught 31 balls (Shaun McDonald)," Bunting said. "They'll play five or six other receivers. They're going to be in all types of personnel groups. They have a great screen game that they've got going for them. They throw the ball downfield a lot. The quarterback can throw the long ball, throws some other outs also. But they are very good making big plays with their receivers."
Arizona State is averaging 232.2 yards per game in passing offense, and is fifth in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency.
At running back, red-shirt freshman Cornell Canidate (5-9, 190) has emerged as the starter for the Sun Devils, getting his first career start against Stanford last week. The fullback is not often utilized in the ASU attack, and junior Mike Carney (6-0, 257) has five carries for 17 yards this season. Canidate is averaging 5.4 yards per carry and 67 yards per game. He has also scored five touchdowns. However, Koetter is not happy with the ASU rushing attack to this point in the season. Koetter said, "I think that for us to be the type of team that we want to be, we have to do a better job of running the ball on offense."
Arizona State is averaging 137.4 yards per game rushing, and 3.5 yards per carry.
The offensive line is young, featuring three juniors, a sophomore, and a true freshman. The left side of the line possesses the most experience in size, with juniors Regis Crawford (6-3, 302) at left tackle, and Tim Fa'aita (6-1, 315) at left guard. The center is also a junior, Tony Aguilar (6-3, 283). The right side of the line is the inexperienced side, with sophomore Drew Hodgdon (6-3, 287) lining up at right guard, while true frosh Chaz White (6-4, 293) starts at right tackle.
The Sun Devils are ninth in the Pac-10 in total offense, averaging 369.6 yards per game, and third in scoring offense at 39.6 points per game.
The Sun Devil defense is led by Lombardi and Nagurski award watch list junior defensive end Terrell Suggs (6-3, 242). Suggs is the fourth-leading tackler for ASU, with 23 stops, including 15 solo tackles. He also has a knack for getting in the backfield, already recording a whopping 10.5 tackles-for-loss in five games, and an amazing eight sacks. Suggs is on his way to All-American status if he can maintain this type of production.
Sophomore Jimmy Verdon (6-4, 265) lines up at the other defensive end slot, and while not a great rusher, has recorded 16 tackles and four solo hits. At the defensive tackles spots are senior Khoa Nguyen (6-2, 306) at nose tackle and junior Brian Montesanto (6-5, 259) at the rush tackle spot where he has recorded three tackles for loss and two sacks.
The linebackers for the Sun Devils have some experience, lead by seniors Mason Unck (6-3, 228) and Josh Amobi (6-2, 219). Unck is tied for the lead for the Sun Devils in tackles with 41, including 20 solo hits, to go along with 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Jamar Williams (6-1, 223) has played well in reserve for the Sun Devils as a true freshman. He has recorded 21 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and an interception this year.
Arizona State is only yielding 120 yards per game in rushing defense, 3.4 yards per carry.
The Sun Devils play a 4-2-5 defense, with three safeties and two corners in the secondary. Sophomore Ricardo Stewart (5-10, 194), who plays a rover-type safety spot, also has 41 tackles, with 22 solo hits. Stewart has seven tackles for loss and two sacks this season. Sophomore Jason Shivers (6-1, 190), the free safety, has 38 tackles on the season, the third-leading tackler for the Sun Devils. Alfred Williams (6-1, 202) is the third safety.
The corners are sophomore R.J. Oliver (5-9, 172) and junior Brett Hudson (6-2, 208). Oliver leads the team in interceptions, with three on the young season, with five other Sun Devils picking off one interception each.
The Sun Devils are giving up 220 yards per game in passing defense, and are eighth in the Pac-10 in that category.
Arizona State is sixth in the Pac-10 in total defense (340.2 yards per game) and eighth in scoring defense, yielding 23 points per game.
Judging based on their records alone, these two teams appear to be headed in opposite directions. North Carolina has won only once, while Arizona State has lost only once. ASU has won their only conference game, while UNC has lost their only conference contest.
The records may be a bit deceiving. The Sun Devils were beaten soundly by a very average Nebraska football team, 48-10. Their wins have come against Division 1-AA Eastern Washington, a Central Florida team that is 1-3, a winless San Diego State team (0-5), and a Stanford (1-2) team that has won only once this season, over San Jose State.
The Sun Devils have also benefited from a positive turnover margin of 1.8, while the Tar Heels have a negative turnover margin of – 2.0. Turnovers are best evaluated on a game-by-game basis, however, and the Heels had fewer turnovers last week (one) than their opponent Georgia Tech (two).
Both teams feature a lot of youth. Young and inexperienced players tend to have more ups and downs than experienced players, and it is difficult to predict from week to week how young players will respond.
The key to the game will be whether the young players on the North Carolina front seven can find a way to put pressure on Walter and the ASU passing game. Though the Sun Devils will undoubtedly attempt to run the ball on North Carolina, they may have less success in that area than many would predict. The Sun Devil running backs and offensive line are not as potent as what North Carolina has faced in nearly every contest this season. If the Tar Heels can limit the ASU running game, they have a chance to pressure Walter.
Against a mediocre, if not below-average schedule, Arizona State has taken care of business and beaten teams they were expected to beat, and lost the only game they were expected to lose. If that pattern holds true, they should beat the Tar Heels this week, as nine point favorites playing at home have a record of 15-3 against non-conference opponents since 1995.
However, despite their record, North Carolina is not, for example, Central Florida, who held the Sun Devils to 261 yards of total offense in Tempe, and has averaged 374 yards per game in total defense.
The outcome of this game may depend on something totally unrelated to stats, youth or experience, or records. The question for the Sun Devils may be whether, sandwiched between two conference games, their players will take the Tar Heels seriously. The question for the Tar Heels is whether they have any reserves of confidence left after a disappointing loss to Georgia Tech and a disappointing start to the season in general.
This game might be all about those two intangibles.