OSU vs. ASU: The Big Q&A on Arizona State

ARIZONA STATE IS on a roll at 8-1 and their dreams of making the new four-team playoff are very much alive. Oregon State at 4-5, meanwhile, needs a win in the worst way. We posed 10 questions to the publisher of DevilsDigest.com, Hod Rabino, with Saturday's Beavers-Sun Devils tilt coming up fast (Pac-12 Networks, 7:45 p.m.) Here's everything you need to know about No. 7 Arizona State ...

1. BeaverFootball.com: ASU's biggest liability earlier in the season was the defense. But they seemed to have made some pretty decent strides, how has that come about?

It was no secret that ASU’s defense was coming into the season marred with inexperienced players, and more importantly players that the coaching staff didn't know all that well because of limited playing time, and in some cases newcomers that have yet to take a snap as a Sun Devil. So there was a huge learning curve that had to take place during games, where the coaches were working to evaluate their personnel and make sure that they tailored the scheme to the players’ skill set.

A lopsided loss to UCLA almost caused head coach Todd Graham to nix the aggressive style of this unit, a trait that has been a staple of the ASU defense since Graham arrived in Tempe. Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson convinced Graham to not alter their approach and just do a better job teaching the scheme to their players.

The rest as they say is history. The defense regained confidence with some big stops in the 4th quarter en route to a miracle win at USC, and then playing some of the lesser offenses in the Pac-12 in Stanford, Washington and Utah their confidence snowballed every week. In the first half versus Notre Dame they executed to perfection their game rattling quarterback Everett Golson time and time again, and after a subpar performance for a quarter and a half in the second stanza it once again came through late in the 4th quarter to secure the victory.

That game was just further proof that the coaches and players are in perfect harmony in terms of devising effective schemes and executing them on Saturdays.

2. BeaverFootball.com: Who are some of the offensive players Beaver fans should keep an eye out for?

Aside from quarterback Taylor Kelly, running back D.J. Foster and Demario Richard are both coming off a solid performance against Note Dame. Foster is the jack of all trades and one of the most athletic, diverse and explosive players on the team, and will often be a significant part of the passing game as well. Richard is a low center of gravity running back who runs between the tackles very well and does a very good job as a receiver from the backfield.

At wide receiver you obviously have Jaelen Strong, but ASU’s no. 2 wideout Cam Smith isn’t that well known. Smith is the downfield threat in ASU’s passing game and the beneficiary of the increased amount of attention secondaries give Strong.

3. BeaverFootball.com: Who are some of the defensive players Beaver fans will notice most on Saturday?

Defensive end Marcus Hardison has not only been the most improved player from week one, but also one of the best players on this side of the ball in the recent weeks. Leads the team is sacks with six and does a great job for someone his size in pass breakups.

At linebacker, Laiu Moeakiola is the proverbial quarterback of the defense and one the leaders of the group. He plays a hybrid linebacker/safety role and is just as adept at stopping the run as he is in coverage and one of the biggest playmakers on defense.

Safeties Jordan Simone and Damarious Randall are not only the team leaders in tackles but also two of the best in the conference. Simone is a high IQ player and a sure tackler, while Randall is a classic ball hawk who moves sideline to side very well.

4. BeaverFootball.com: Besides the absence of Taylor Kelly, what went else wrong in the one defeat on ASU's ledger -- how did UCLA, generally averaging about 30 point per game this season, somehow put up 62 points against ASU?

The first few minutes of the second half often times dictate a game’s fate and that certainly was the case in that contest. But the warning signs actually came just seconds before the end of the first half where the ASU offense was marching down the field in position to tie or take a lead into the locker room, and quarterback Michael Bercovici threw an ill advised pass that was returned 95 yards for a touchdown.

A shell shocked ASU squad proceeded to give up 21 points in the 3rd quarter on demoralizing plays that went for an 80-yard touchdown pass a and a 100-yard kickoff return.

In a nut shell it was contest where nothing went right for ASU and they were quickly boat raced in this contest. Ironically, ASU proceeded to play much better after this loss while UCLA had a lot of bumps in the road ever since.

5. BeaverFootball.com: Is Kelly back to 100 percent? Is he running as much as he used to, has anything changed for him?

In my opinion, last week when he faced Notre Dame, Kelly was the healthiest he has been since his injury. He did do a good job with the zone read and running the ball like he always does, but his passing game looked to be much more on point than it was against Washington and Utah.

He got more receivers involved, and credit the offensive line for doing a better job protecting him.

6. BeaverFootball.com: What's the injury picture look like for ASU heading into the game?

There were only two players in non contact jerseys when ASU began practicing this week: LB Laiu Moeakiola and DB Jordan Simone. With Moeakiola this has become the norm for a few weeks now as the staff takes precaution with him, while Simone was banged up last Saturday.

We’ll see if their status changes as the week progresses but I’m expecting both to play on Saturday.

7. BeaverFootball.com: What's the one thing that worry Oregon State fans the most about ASU?

I would have to say the ASU defense. That group has been lights out for the last several weeks, and as mentioned playing with large doses of confidence right now. Their contestant blitzing has been extremely disruptive to their opponents, and in many cases led to turnovers that the offense has been able to capitalize on.

8. BeaverFootball.com: What's the one thing ASU fans are worried the most about when it comes to the tilt with the Beavers?

Playing such a late night game in near freezing temperatures and rainy conditions is obviously not the ideal weather atmosphere for a team such as Arizona State and they will have to do a formidable job to still play at a high level in spite of those elements.

9. BeaverFootball.com: Todd Graham is signed through the 2018 season with ASU to seek additional 1-year extensions after 2014 and 2015 . Graham donated a whopping $500K to the ASU stadium project. Yet he can't seem to shake the media label of being a nomadic coach who said one thing and then left, with the Pitt text message departure particularly damaging. What does Graham need to do to quiet the naysayers?

In my opinion all that talk about Graham leaving ASU in the near future has jumped the shark because of the facts that you pointed out in your question, as well as the fact that Graham knows that his family went through hell with the move to Pittsburgh and the sudden departure. He has no desire to do the same to them again leaving a place where his family has been the happiest it has ever been on any of his coaching stops (Graham’s in-laws live the Metropolitan Phoenix area).

Graham can’t help it if some national reporters are holding on for dear life to a notion that at one time what may have been relevant and now simply isn’t. He knows he is building something special in Tempe but that is still work in the progress and every year that he stays here and sees this process through will eventually have those reporters talking a different narrative.

10. BeaverFootball.com: What's your prediction? Final score?

The Oregon State defense has given up 29 or more points in each of the last six games, so I feel the ASU offense who played one its best games of the year last week should be able to find success as well against the Beavers, especially if their offense is as balanced as it was last week.

An aggressive ASU defense should be able to harass quarterback Sean Mannion who isn’t very mobile and has an offensive line that is giving up three-plus sacks a game. On paper it doesn’t appear that ASU should be concerned much with the Beavers’ rushing attack, but Mannion is still a good quarterback that will find success at certain points of the game. I can see the ASU offense jumping to an early big lead making the Oregon State offense one dimensional and that will feed into the ASU’s defense aggressive mindset.

The game may start out as an even matchup, but I see ASU pulling away and winning this contest 35-17.

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