Arizona State Sun Devils
First Down: Quick Hitters
Arizona State @ Stanford – October 22
Last Meeting: Arizona State 34, Stanford 31 ('04)
Side-by-Side Stats: (ASU/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 8/10
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game: 118/81
2004 Passing Yards Per Game: 317/246
Returning Defensive Starters: 6/5
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 123/143
2004 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 236/249
2004 Record: 9-3/4-7
Vegas' Predicted 2005 Record: 8-3/4-7
Second Down: Offense
Arizona State's offense plays right into the national stereotype of Pac-10 football, featuring a high-octane passing game and a rushing attack several steps behind.
This April, the Oakland Raiders spent a third-round draft pick on last year's quarterback, Andrew Walter. Walter broke John Elway's Pac-10 career passing touchdown record with 85 scores, set a school record with 10,617 passing yards, and also completed 57% of his passes his senior season, an accuracy comparable to anyone in the conference not named Matt Leinart or Aaron Rodgers. After Walter went down with an injury late last season, this year's signal caller, Sam Keller, played in Arizona State's last two contests, completing over 60% of his passes against Arizona, and leading a game-winning drive against Purdue - both schools that pride themselves on their defenses. While there should be a slight drop-off at the position following Walter's departure, Keller looks to be an able replacement.
Keller, a true junior, will have a plethora of weapons at his disposal in the aerial attack. Both of last year's starting wide receivers return, including Derek Hagan, who's earned preseason All-America mention after exploding for 1,248 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. The fact that Hagan is so successful with a 40 time north of 4.5 highlights what great hands he has and how crisply he runs his routes.
A pair of tight ends figures prominently in the Sun Devil attack. Senior Lee Burghgraef is a proven blocking tight end, while sophomore Zach Miller, the country's top tight end recruit in his class, was simply the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year after posting over 500 receiving yards and snagging six touchdowns. Miller's goalline presence can help the Sun Devils compensate for the lack of a running game.
Last year, injuries and suspensions forced Arizona State to use six different running backs over the course of the season. Even with the incredible turnover at the position, the Sun Devils still averaged 118 rushing yards per game, a testament to their outstanding offensive line. This year, former wide receiver, kick returner and punt returner Rudy Burgess has added bulk in the off-season and figures to upgrade the rushing attack.
The reason all these skill position players have the opportunity to shine in the Arizona State attack is an offensive line that head coach Dick Koetter unabashedly called the best unit on his team this past spring. Center Grayling Love returns after a First Team All Pac-10 season, and three other starters return to form the unit's nucleus. In fact, the only projected starter this season who didn't start last season is true sophomore left tackle Brandon Rodd, who Koetter felt could have been a freshman All-American had he not been lost for the season with a torn ACL. Along with USC, UCLA and Cal, Arizona State's offensive line is one of the most formidable in the conference, and Stanford's good fortune is to face all four of these schools in a five-week span.
Third Down: Defense
While not as strong as the offense, the defense looks to be in the upper echelon of Pac-10 defenses, clearly ranking behind only USC, and comparing favorably to Cal and Oregon State. The strength starts on the line, where returning starters defensive end Kyle Caldwell and defensive tackle Jordan Hill each posted seven sacks last season. Four JUCO transfers figure to compete for playing time at the other two positions on the line. Arizona State should continue to harass opposing quarterbacks after registering 36 sacks last season, the most for the school since defensive end Terrell Suggs and his single-season record 24 sacks were on the roster.
The linebacking unit looks similarly strong with returning senior starters Dale Robinson and Jamar Williams coming off a 2004 season where they combined for 174 tackles and Robinson was named the team's defensive newcomer of the year and Honorable Mention All Pac-10. Sophomore linebacker Robert James holds down the other starting slot, and while none of the three linebackers were highly regarded recruits, all have proven themselves fully capable of excelling at a Pac-10 level.
The situation in the secondary could be a little more interesting, as the unit looks to be the team's biggest question mark, alongside running back and punter. After a superb 2004 season, in which the Sun Devils allowed fewer than 20 passing touchdowns against a schedule including four probable future NFL starters (Kyle Orton, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Tate, and Matt Leinart), the losses are heavy. Last year's top cornerback, senior R.J. Oliver, has been hampered by a foot injury to the point that he is currently out of the starting lineup. First Team All Pac-10 strong safety Riccardo Stewart has graduated, as has cornerback Chris McKenzie of 4.3 speed. All told, Arizona State will return only one starter in what is now an unproven secondary, not the best of news for a team that will again face some of the strongest passing attacks in the country.
Fourth Down: Extra Points
- The special teams picture is decidedly mixed for coordinator Tom Osborne. Junior kicker Jesse Ainsworth received All Pac-10 recognition last season after connecting on 18 of 25 kicks from inside 50 and producing touchbacks off nearly 60% off his kickoffs. However, sophomore punter Chris MacDonald was the weakest in conference last season, as four of his punts were blocked and his net average was a measly 32.4 yards.
- Last year's 34-31 Arizona State victory over Stanford in Tempe was one of the strangest games in recent memory. Despite notching 300 more all-purpose yards than the Cardinal, Arizona State needed a touchdown with nine seconds left to eke out the victory.
- Arizona State plays in one of the conference's most high profile out-of-conference contests (alongside USC-Notre Dame and UCLA-Oklahoma) when they visit LSU on September 10. After Oregon State came three missed extra points away from springing the upset in Death Valley last season, the Sun Devils will carry the Pac-10 banner and take their best shot at the preseason #6 team in the land. The Sun Devils are currently seven-point underdogs.
- The Arizona State game ushers in a brutal portion of the schedule for the Cardinal. Stanford's last six opponents (Arizona State, UCLA, USC, Oregon State, Cal, and Notre Dame) all played in bowls last season. Depending on exactly how the season shakes out, Stanford's schedule should again be one of the 20 most difficult in the land.
- The contest will be Stanford's homecoming this season. Though Arizona State appears to be the better team at this point in time, Stanford alums may be in for a pleasant, high-scoring surprise come Reunion Weekend, as the Cardinal are 6-1 against the spread in their last seven against Arizona State, and the teams have averaged a combined 71 points in those seven contests.
- Arizona State will enjoy a bye week before visiting Palo Alto. Facing LSU, USC and Oregon in their five games previous, the Sun Devils may end up desperately needing that week of rest and recovery.
- Arizona State ducks Cal in the conference rotation this season. Both teams look to be among the strongest in the conference, so they're probably both just as happy not to face each other.
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