Know Your Foe: Arizona State

Devils Digest publisher Hod Rabino shares his thoughts ahead of Saturday's Pac-12 South showdown between USC and Arizona State.

SCPlaybook: Just when it seemed like Arizona State turned the corner against Missouri, they follow that up with a dismal loss at Illinois, prompting a run of "Same Old Sun Devils" comments. Is this program ever going to put it all together?

Hod Rabino, publisher of DevilsDigest.com: That is an excellent question that epitomizes the way the Sun Devil nation is feeling right now. Don't get me wrong, the win against Missouri wasn't a thing of beauty by any means. You can make the argument that there were probably just as many mental mistakes in the Missouri win as there were in the Illinois loss. Obviously, after a win you tend to overlook those mishaps because you realize the bottom line. Yet, after a loss those same mistakes are magnified to say the least and now it looks like 2010 all over again where close and frustrating losses were all the rage.

So, which ASU team we will see on Saturday? I suspect that you won't see a Sun Devil squad that will play a "clean" game and keep their errors to a minimum. Even in 2007 where ASU won 10 games they more often than not won the hard way after digging themselves one hole after another. Therefore, I suspect that ASU will once again commit its fair share of mistakes on Saturday and we'll see if they can still overcome them against USC.

Composure is always a concern with Arizona State. How are they faring, middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict specifically, in avoiding the kinds of stupid penalties that killed them last season against USC and Stanford?

HR: Thus far in 2011, I didn't see an out of control Burfict who let his emotions dictate his play as the case was in previous seasons. He played his best game of the year last week (the defense has a whole was solid as well) and collecting 17 total tackles and four sacks (tied for the Pac-12 lead) after three games are certainly above average stats for many linebackers in the Pac-12.

Having said all that, for this one-time USC commit this weekend's contest will be emotionally charged. The fact that this is probably the last time Burfict will face the Trojans (as he's expected to declare for the NFL draft after the season) won't reduce the poignant factor here. As the case with every ASU opponent, I expect the USC players to try and bait Burfict into committing some penalties but I don't think he will fall into that trap.

As far as other team members committing stupid penalties, as I mentioned before I wouldn't put it past them especially after what I saw against Missouri and Illinois.

The Pac-12 has the top two draft-eligible quarterbacks in Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley, but there may not be a more intriguing player than Sun Devils signal-caller Brock Osweiler with his combination of size, mobility, arm strength and leadership. Evaluate his play after three games in his first season starting.

HR: It may be stating the obvious, but Osweiler looked great in ASU's two victories and struggled in the Sun Devils' lone defeat so far. In the first two contests, the ASU QB showed a lot of poise, accuracy, mobility and against Missouri he shook off a bad fourth quarter to lead the team to an overtime victory.

Against Illinois, he held onto the ball far too long which was the main reason for some of the six sacks he suffered. His decision making took a big step back and overall he reminded all of us that he is still a fairly inexperienced signal caller.

Overall, I still think he's one of the better quarterbacks in the Pac-12 but against a tough defense such as USC he will have to shake off last week's poor performance to justify that theory.

Offensive line play seems to be an annual concern in Tempe. After surrendering six sacks to the Illini and struggling to open holes in the run game the past two weeks, can they bounce back against a stout USC defensive line?

HR: I personally think that the ASU offensive line sometimes gets over criticized. Having said that, their performance last week at Illinois didn't do anything to silence the naysayers. It is quite bizarre that their pass protection against a very formidable Missouri defensive line was outstanding, but in the same category against a seemingly inferior Illinois front four it was subpar, although you cannot hang all of the six sacks on this group.

Run blocking definitely was below average versus the Tigers but I felt that at times against the Fighting Illini that they actually had their moments opening some running lanes. Running back Cameron Marshall not being at 100 percent and missing large portions of the game certainly didn't help the ground attack either. More than anything, I was more concerned with the five penalties called on the offensive linemen last week.

An experienced offensive line, which undoubtedly got chewed out in spades during their film session, has to find a way to rebound from such a horrendous performance. But much like the rest of the team their inconsistency makes you wonder if you will see a turnaround on Saturday or not.

The Arizona State defense was gutted by injuries in the spring and again in fall camp. How have they played after losing the likes of corner Omar Bolden and linebacker Brandon Magee?

HR: If you asked me that question after the Missouri game I would say that the team is sorely missing those two players. Then comes an outstanding performance against Illinois, on the road no less, with their best pass rusher (Junior Onyeali) lost for the game after the first snap and now you believe that maybe this defense can withstand all the bad luck it has been dealt. So the inconsistency is alive and well also on the side of the ball.

USC's offense will naturally be a huge test for this unit. I think the defense can build on their play from last week but obviously they know that the caliber of opponent will be quite higher.

The Sun Devils took another blow Saturday at Illinois, losing defensive end Junior Onyeali with a knee injury. How critical is his absence and who steps in to replace him?

HR: As I type this up ASU head coach Dennis Erickson announced that Onyeali has a meniscus tear that could sideline Onyeali for six weeks, if not the entire the season. He's by far the best pass rushing defensive lineman on the team (was Pac-10 freshman defensive player of the year in 2010) and I felt at the beginning of the season that the defensive end depth was suspect as it is.

While it is a loss that may be hard to fully recover from, JC transfer defensive end Davon Coleman has been playing well since the beginning of the season and living up to some of the accolades he came with into this season. He is leading all Sun Devil defensive linemen with 11 tackles. Coleman's play from here on out will easily dictate the fortunes of the defensive line this week and the rest of the season.

Special teams obviously played a huge role in last year's 34-33 USC win. Where does Arizona State stand in the third facet of the game?

HR: I wish I could sit here and say that ASU's special teams, especially in the kicking game, are performing at a higher level than 2010. The Sun Devils are breaking in a redshirt freshman kicker, Alex Garoutte, and a JC transfer punter, Josh Hubner, which probably explains the pedestrian results for both after three games.

Garoutte had made 3 of 5 field goals but one of misses almost cost the team the Missouri contest and the second miss definitely was naturally the difference in a three-point loss to Illinois. The fact that his missed field goal last week was a very makeable 32-yard attempt was adding insult to injury.

Additionally, he had an extra point attempt blocked against Missouri which could potentially been another game changer. Hubner on his end is just averaging 37.7 yards a punt and one of Illinois touchdowns was a result great field position following a shanked punt. Overall this is an area of concern.

On the bright side ASU has very capable returners such as Jamal Miles (who already returned a kickoff for a touchdown this year), Kyle Middlebrooks and Rashad Ross. They well could be the difference in a close game this weekend.

True or false: This is the most important game of the Dennis Erickson era at Arizona State.

HR: 100 percent true and I don't even know how you can attempt to spin this otherwise. The loss to Illinois won't prevent ASU from having a chance to win the Pac-12 South, but a loss to USC would put a serious damper in those aspirations. If that were to happen and the Sun Devils were sitting at 2-2, staring at two back-to-back challenging road games at Utah and Oregon I don't know if even the most optimistic ASU follower could see this team do a 180 degree turn, win a Pac-12 South championship which would undoubtedly assure Erickson of a contract extension and show that this program is heading in the right direction.

There have been so many expectations placed on the 2011 Sun Devils. The win against Missouri was achieved on a big stage and to some extent validated those accolades but a lot of that momentum was eroded after last week's loss. Saturday represents a golden opportunity to silence the critics who believe ASU's is doomed for another disappointing year and a win could prove that this season indeed could be all the team and its fans have hoped for.


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