2006 Look Ahead: Arizona State

There have been some squirrelly and high-scoring affairs between Stanford and Arizona State in recent years, and that looks like the recipe again in '06 with two teams boasting a stable of talented and returning offensive weapons, but questions on defense. The Sun Devils have a high-profile quarterback battle, an overflowing backfield (spilled over to receiver) and a system that puts up numbers...

Arizona State Sun Devils

First Down: Quick Hitters

Stanford @ Arizona State – October 21

Last Meeting: Stanford 45, Arizona State 35 ('05)

Side-by-Side Stats: (Arizona State/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 8/10
2005 Yards Per Point: 14.1/12.9
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game: 146/92
2005 Yards Per Carry: 3.9/2.6
2005 Passing Yards Per Game: 373/224
2005 Pass Completion Rate: 63.3/61.4
Returning Defensive Starters: 4/6
2005 Yards Per Point Allowed: 15.7/14.4
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 180/156
2005 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 4.4/4.0
2005 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 289/286
2005 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 59.6/60.8
2005 Record: 7-5/5-6

Second Down: Offense

With nearly everyone except standout wideout Derek Hagan returning, this should continue to be one of the most high-scoring offenses in the country.

Signal callers Sam Keller and Rudy Carpenter will battle for the starting job in one of the most highly-watched races in the country.  The great news for Dirk Koetter and first-year offensive coordinator Roy Wittke (who last held the same post at Arkansas) is that either quarterback would start for just about other team in the conference (though the races at USC, Stanford and UCLA would be fun to watch).  Indeed, the talking heads are calling it the top quarterback unit in the country, and with good reason.  Both passers have put up great numbers, while the senior Keller brings great size and experience and the sophomore Carpenter simply led the NCAA in passing efficiency on the strength of a 68.4% completion rate – as a freshman.  Between Jake Plummer, Andrew Walter and these guys, the Devils are building themselves quite the reputation for the premier passing program this side of the Rockies (no offense, USC).

Enough gushing about the quarterbacks.  The tailbacks also pack a powerful one-two punch, with Keegan Herring looking to assume the starting tailback role after 870 rushing yards as a freshman last year, which will slide Honorable Mention All Pac-10 tailback Rudy Burgess to receiver.  Burgess practiced at both receiver and cornerback this spring, highlighting the speed he uses to average over 20 yards per kickoff return.  Both backs, Burgess especially, have been called the poor man's Reggie Bush – and with their explosiveness, great hands and speed, the comparison has some grounding in reality (though Bush, obviously, was once-in-a-generation).

Rounding out the receiver corps is First-Team All Pac-10 senior Terry Richardson.  However, with Richardson suspended for the spring and the departure of Hagan (a school-record 3,939 career receiving yards and 258 career catches, one-upping former Pac-10 record holder Troy Walters thanks to 12-game schedules), the unit is the biggest blemish on an otherwise spotless offense.

The offensive line should continue to dominate off the ball and give the skill players the time and the holes to shine.  Second-Team All Pac-10 center Grayling Love does depart, but two Honorable Mention All Pac-10 tackles (Andrew Carnahan at right and Brandon Rodd at left) headline a unit with plenty of experience.  The line suffered a bad rash of injuries last year, so with better luck, they should come close to five yards per carry, their best mark since their magical 11-1 1996 season.

Third Down: Defense

The offense may fight USC's for top honors in the Pac-10, but the defense will have to battle to stay out of the cellar.  A unit that allowed Pac-10 opponents 497 yards per contest last year returns just four starters, but a talented group of incoming transfers may elevate the defense from horrific to mediocre.

The defense looks to be weakest in the middle, as Pac 10 Co-Defensive Player of the Year Dale Robinson departs with Jamar Williams, a fourth-round draft choice and the Devils' Insight Bowl Defensive MVP last December.  With just two seniors in the unit, a former walk-on and freshman, 23-year-old Mike Nixon, may see significant time in the middle, which cannot bode well for the Sun Devils.  As is Arizona State's pattern, a bevy of junior college transfers will factor prominently in the unit.

The situation is similar in the secondary.  With All Pac-10 Honorable Mention free safety Zach Catanese, a former junior college star himself, and junior corner Justin Tryon, a JUCO All-American this year, there will likely be downs this season when the entire secondary arrived in Tempe via a junior college.  Whatever Stanford fans think of the strategy, it may be the Sun Devils' saving grace this year, as Catanese is the only returning starter from last season and there is not a whole lot of homegrown talent in the backfield.

The line, meanwhile, should be a relative strength.  True, starters Quency Darley and DeWayne Hollyfield depart from a line that notched just 22 sacks last season, but the Devils round out the line with transfers from across the college football landscape – junior colleges, Florida, BYU and, notably, senior defensive end Loren Howard from Northwestern, an absolute stud.  Howard terrorized the Big 10 with eight sacks in his last season in Evanston, and could well be the biggest surprise in the conference this year.  With Honorable Mention All Pac-10 tackle Jordan Hill plugging up the middle and talent and experience throughout the two-deep, the front might be able to get into opposing backfields quickly enough to give the green back seven time to mature.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- Arizona State at Colorado on September 16 will not generate the headlines of California/Tennessee or USC/Notre Dame, but it is an out-of-conference victory that would do loads for the Pac-10's credibility.

- This team should epitomize the national perception of Pac-10 football this year – good but not great overall, with a potent offense and porous defense (especially through the air) that should make most games high-scoring thrillers.

- Sun Devil fans have to be happy with their schedule.  The trip to Boulder is the only non-conference tilt where Arizona State should break a sweat, and in conference, the home/away breakdown works nicely.  The teams with the lowest (Arizona, Oregon State and Washington) and highest (USC and Cal) preseason expectations are all on the road in contests that Arizona State should win or lose, respectively, regardless of home-field advantage.  That saves the Fiesta Bowl edge for Oregon, Stanford, Washington State and UCLA, opponents where the field may push the Devils over the top.

- Stanford is homecoming for Arizona State, and it comes in the middle of a brutal stretch for the Sun Devils.  The three games before Stanford, Arizona State will visit Cal, host Oregon and travel to USC – the three toughest opponents on its schedule.  Plus, after Stanford, Arizona State has to return to the road for another two weeks.

- For the Cardinal, meanwhile, the visit to Tempe comes after the homecoming hosting of Arizona and precedes a bye week.  Advantage, Card.

- What a high-scoring series these teams have.  The last time the winner failed to crack 30 was 2000.  Stanford did not fall too far short either, winning 29-7.  Since then, the winning team has scored 51, 65, 38, 34 and 45 in the annual match-ups.

2006 Regular Season Prediction:

7-5, 4-5 Pac-10

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