2007 Look Ahead: Arizona State

Stanford will finish September with a fourth straight game at Stanford Stadium, which also brings new Sun Devils head coach Dennis Erickson on his first road trip. ASU has a lot of returning talent on offense, but there are a couple key questions in the passing game. On defense, they need JC transfers to deliver. The Sun Devils have a favorable first two months of their schedule to find answers.

Arizona State Sun Devils

First Down: Quick Hitters

Arizona State @ Stanford – September 29

Last Meeting: Arizona State 38, Stanford 3

Side-by-Side Stats: (Arizona State/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 9/8
2006 Points Per Game: 26.8/10.6
2006 Rushing Yards Per Game: 170/65
2006 Yards Per Carry: 4.4/2.1
2006 Passing Yards Per Game: 198/167
2006 Pass Completion Rate: 54.4/52.8
Returning Defensive Starters: 5/8
2006 Points Allowed Per Game: 25.1/31.4
2006 Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game: 117/211
2006 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 3.6/4.9
2006 Passing Yards Allowed Per Game: 211/177
2006 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 54.5/60.3
2006 Record: 7-6/1-11
2007 Projected Record: (7-5, 4-5)/(3-9, 2-7)
2007 Projected Pac-10 Finish: T-5th/T-9th

Second Down: Offense

This would be one of the better units in the Pac-10, if not for a questionable receiving corps that drops it firmly into the middle of the bunch.

Eight offensive starters returned in 2006, but the Sun Devils lost all-time leading receiver Derek Hagan and had Roy Wittke take over the offensive coordinator position from then-head coach Dirk Koetter.  Plus, the quarterback position was a fiasco: Koetter named Sam Keller the starter, then reversed himself and gave the job to Rudy Carpenter in August.  Keller transferred and Carpenter struggled in the big games throughout last year, never finding the confidence he had when he led the NCAA in passing efficiency his freshman season.  (To be fair, a rumored injury to his throwing hand may have played a factor.)  Whether it was the new coordinator, the lack of a reliable receiver or the quarterback drama, the Devils really struggled with the ball last year, dropping from 37 to 27 points per game.

In 2007, they do return nine offensive starters, most of anyone in the conference save for UCLA.  The line is the only unit in the Pac-10 to return all five starters, as 2006 standout tackle Andrew Carnahan (seventh-round draft pick) missed most of last year with an injury.  Carnahan's fill-in, right tackle Julius Orieukwu, has a seven-foot wingspan, and right guard Paul Fanaika and left tackle Randon Rodd were each Honorable Mention All Pac-10 last year.  The star is probably center Mike Pollak though.  He has been in the starting lineup on-and-off since freshman year, and he was voted Second-Team All Pac-10 and the team's Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman last year.  Experience is everything on the line; while none of these guys were top-25 recruits out of high school, the rush game should be in good hands and might even improve upon the 4.4 yards per carry last season.

Carpenter has proven his talent at quarterback, though it gets dicey should he go down, as Keller is now at Nebraska.  Depth is not a question at tailback, where the one-two punch of Ryan Torain and Keegan Herring would be the best in any conference that did not feature USC.

But the huge question out of Tempe is who is going to catch the ball.  Tight end Zach Miller was the only guy that caught over 350 yards last season, and he left early for the NFL (third round).  Rudy Burgess, a poor man's Reggie Bush, figures to slide back from cornerback and tailback and start exclusively at wideout, but Dennis Erickson traditionally runs a spread-concept, three- and four-receiver package.  Who lines up alongside Burgess?  Juniors Mike Jones (who runs a 4.45 40) and Nate Kimbrough combined for only 553 receiving yards last year, and they started throughout much of the 2006 season.  Kimbrough's knee kept him out of spring too, so that may mean sophomore Chris McGaha and tight end Brett Miller factor more heavily into the mix.

The receiving position has been in limbo since Hagan left (the Devils dropped from 373 passing yards per game in 2005 to 198 last year, with a corresponding completion percentage drop-off from 63.3 percent to 54.4 percent.  Every other offensive position is solid, so how the receivers play could be the difference between fighting for a bowl bid and the Pac-10 crown.

Third Down: Defense

In time, Dennis Erickson should bring a defensive intensity to Tempe that was lacking under Dirk Koetter and Bruce Sndyer.  The back four does look to be a strength, but with just five returning defensive starters and a questionable linebacking core, Erickson may not be able to mold this defense to his standards in just one year.

The secondary does lose safety Zach Catanese, one of the conference's most underrated players, but the cupboard is still pretty full.  Senior free safety Josh Barrett and senior corner Justin Tryon were both Honorable Mention All Pac-10 last year, and junior safety Jeremy Payton and senior corner Chris Baloney make sure that there are no weak links.  (By the way, both Baloney and Tryon, along with defensive ends Luis Vasquez and Eric Tanner, middle linebacker Morris Wooten, Torain, star punter Jonathan Johnson and backup safety Troy Nolan are junior college transfers.  All should see significant playing time this year.  The beat goes on in Tempe.)

While the pass defense should match last year's strong 54.5 completion rate allowed, the front seven may not match the 117 rush yards allowed per game, their best since 1997.  I think that number bounces close to the 180 per game allowed in 2005, given a linebacking core that returns only one of last year's starters – sophomore Mike Nixon (age 24 this season, spent several years in baseball after signing with UCLA in 2002 as a quarterback recruit).  Wooten did post 104 tackles in junior college last year and figures to hold down the "Mike" position, and sophomores Travis Goethel and Ryan McFoy (former defensive back, good speed) show promise at weakside backer.  Still, the unit is raw and will greatly benefit from a backloaded schedule:  the Devils should be favored in every contest up until the four-game stretch of Cal, at Oregon, at UCLA and USC that starts October 27.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

The Devils' September 29 trip to Stanford will be their first road game of the season.  The Devils only have four road games (Stanford, Washington State, Oregon and UCLA) all season.

Thursday night college football, usually an ESPN staple featuring Big East and ACC teams, comes west this year, as the Devils host USC in a November 22 tilt.  USC should still do just fine, but the extra advantage of a nationally-televised home game at night is probably worth another touchdown.

Erickson will really enjoy a honeymoon through late October.  The first seven games are San Jose State, Colorado, San Diego State, Oregon State, Stanford and the Washington schools.  7-0 is not unrealistic at all.

The last time the Stanford-Arizona State winner failed to crack 30 was 2000.  (Stanford won 29-7.)  Since, the winning team has scored 51, 65, 38, 34, 45 and 38.  Unfortunately for the Cardinal, I think the Devils continue that trend this season.


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