ASU Sun Devils preview

And the beat goes on for the USC Trojans. A week after disposing of their "toughest test" of the season in the Oregon Ducks, the Trojans will face their newest "toughest test" of the season in the Arizona State Sun Devils.

After finishing last season 9-3 with a Sun Bowl win over Purdue, Arizona State entered 2005 with thoughts of competing for a National Championship. Two games would be circled on the calendar, one against the LSU Tigers (which they gave away with terrible special teams play) and this one against the Trojans. USC blitzed the Sun Devils in 2004 with 42 first-half points and cruised to a 45-7 victory, halting the Devils' perfect 5-0 start. This season, the Devils host the Trojans with a lot of the same supporting cast, but they are taking orders from a new general, quarterback Sam Keller.

Sun Devils on Offense

Quarterback – #9 Sam Keller

After an injury suffered by Arizona State's career passing leader Andrew Walter, Sam Keller was given an opportunity to showcase his skills in the Sun Bowl against the Purdue Boilermakers. Keller responded by completing 25 of 45 passes for 370 yards and three touchdowns, and he hasn't slowed down since. Keller heads into Saturday completing 60% of his passes on the season (88-147) with 16 touchdowns against just two interceptions. Through four games, Keller is averaging just over 360 yards per game through the air (1,443 yards total) and has four touchdown passes in each game. Both of his interceptions came in the season opener against Temple. Although he has a somewhat unorthodox delivery, pushing the ball from his shoulder rather than straight over the top, Keller has a great arm and is fearless with the ball. He can make every throw asked of a quarterback and can fit the ball into any space. He also doesn't seem to have the mental breakdowns that would often plague Andrew Walter. Unlike Oregon quarterback Kellen Clemens, Keller won't be a threat to run the ball, but Keller has a superior arm and a better receiving corps to utilize. He victimized LSU's vaunted secondary for 35 completions and 461 yards, with four touchdowns. While he can't yet touch Matt Leinart, it wouldn't be too farfetched to call Sam Keller, after just five career starts, one of the best quarterbacks in college football.

Running Back – #3 Rudy Burgess, #24 Keegan Herring

The running back position at Arizona State went through a bit of an upheaval during the offseason, but true freshman Keegan Herring has more than stepped into the role; he's run into it. Through four games, Herring has 55 carries for 425 yards and four touchdowns. Herring stands just 5'10" and is strictly a speed back, though he'll get carries both inside the tackles and outside. Herring's best game came against Northwestern, where he rushed for 197 yards and two touchdowns. Rudy Burgess is the other featured back. He's been an added asset on the ground this season, averaging 4.2 yards per carry on 44 attempts (186 total yards) and two touchdowns. Burgess, however, is a much bigger threat out of the backfield. He's second on the team with 14 catches, which he's turned into 185 yards and three touchdowns. Burgess and Herring are a very solid one-two punch, but they're far milder than thunder and lightning. Arizona State doesn't really have a LenDale White type bruising runner who can pound the Trojan defensive line between the tackles. Antone Saulsberry, at 6 feet and 221 pounds is the closest thing, but he doesn't see enough playing time to figure much into the Trojans' game planning. This Arizona State ground attack will be looking to score the first rushing touchdown against the Trojan defense.

Wide Receiver – #80 Derek Hagan, #17 Terry Richardson, #89 Matt Miller, #18 Moey Mutz

This is absolutely the best unit the Sun Devils have. Sam Keller may be a great player, but like any good quarterback, he lets his receivers work for him. Derek Hagan is the obvious number one option for Keller on every play, and with all the great receivers in the Pac-10, an argument could be made for Hagan being the best (though I'll take Dwayne Jarrett). Hagan has the height, speed and hands of a great pass catcher, which he combines with precise route running. He came into the season ranked third on the Sun Devils' career list for receiving yards and should finish his career as their all-time leader in receptions and receiving touchdowns. Through the season's first four games, Hagan leads the team with 26 grabs for 431 yards and five touchdowns. It might be best for the Trojans to simply let Hagan get his catches and limit his YAC (yards after the catch), rather than try to deny him the ball and allow the other Sun Devil receivers to operate in space. Those other receivers would be Terry Richardson, Matt Miller and Moey Mutz. All three receivers have a knack for finding soft spots in the defense and will rarely drop a pass. Mutz has hauled in 11 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown. Miller's nine catches have gone for 219 yards and two touchdowns, and Richardson, although he's missed a full game, has eight grabs for 84 yards. All four of these receivers can both stretch the field with speed or find holes underneath the coverage. Hawaii may have passed the ball numerous times, but they never came close to putting this much talent into their passing game. The Trojan pass defense played very well against Oregon and will be put to their most severe test thus far against the Sun Devils.

Tight End – #86 Zach Miller, #82 Jamaal Lewis

With all the skill at the wide receiver position, it may seem odd to say that the most raw talent may exist at the tight end position. That may be the case, however, with Zach Miller and Jamaal Lewis playing tight end and H-Back for the Sun Devils. Miller sat out the two previous games due to a sprained ankle, but should be back to full health against the Trojans. Miller has just five catches for 49 yards on the season, but will be looking to make an impact in their biggest game. In his place, Jamaal Lewis has nine grabs, four of which have gone for touchdowns, and 195 yards receiving. Miller and Lewis will match up against Keith Rivers and Thomas Williams, who may be the only pair of outside linebackers in the Pac-10 who can neutralize the speed of the Sun Devil tight ends.

Offensive Line – #62 LT Brandon Rodd, #66 LG Stephen Berg, #71 C Grayling Love, #76 RG Mike Pollack, #52 RT Andrew Carnahan

The Sun Devils could give Randy Moss and Terrell Owens a game's worth of eligibility and it wouldn't matter against the Trojans if this offensive line can't keep Frostee Rucker, Lawrence Jackson and company off of Sam Keller. The line, however, is extremely solid and is another one of the strengths of this Sun Devil offense. Brandon Rodd has a lot of potential, but is seeing the field consistently for the first time this season after suffering a knee injury last season. Frostee Rucker looked like a man on a mission last Saturday and will go toe to toe with Rodd on Saturday. Andrew Carnahan is the other tackle and was named to the All Pac-10 second team last year. He stands 6' 8" tall and will be a good test for Lawrence Jackson. Stephen Berg and Grayling Love are standouts along the line and won't give in to the Trojan tackles. Mike Pollack, along with Leo Talavou, will fill in at right guard for injured starter Zach Krula, who is out with a broken ankle. Love will most likely shift to this side to assist with whichever Trojan is going up against the right guard. Overall, the line has given up just three sacks on the season and though they are good, they are far from impenetrable. The Trojan defensive line has recently found a way to rise up to any challenge presented, and on Saturday we'll see if they can do it again.

Sun Devils on Defense

Defensive Line – #50 Kyle Caldwell, #1 Jordan Hill, #99 Quency Darley, #45 Mike Talbot

I'm not sure I'd advise it, but the Trojans would probably be okay in this game if they chose to run the ball on 90% of their plays. The line isn't weak, but this Trojan offensive line is just that good. Kyle Caldwell is the best of the group and was named to the preseason Ted Hendricks Award watch list, given to the nation's best defensive end. He'll go up against either Winston Justice or Sam Baker in what should end up being a great one-on-one battle. Jordan Hill and Quency Darley make up the middle of the line and combined, probably don't weigh up to Oregon's Haloti Ngata. The Trojan line was able to keep Ngata almost completely quiet last weekend and the same should go for Hill and Darley. Mike Talbot lines up at the other defensive end spot. He made the switch to the defensive line from the fullback position last season. Talbot leads this group with 13 tackles on the year and a fumble recovery. Hill is right behind him with 11 tackles, including three for loss and a sack. Darley has seven tackles and Caldwell, due to missing two games, has just two tackles. DeWayne Hollyfield is another guy that could make some noise for the defensive line. In limited action, he's picked up three sacks and four of his six tackles have come behind the line of scrimmage.

Linebackers – #4 Jamar Williams, #44 Dale Robinson, #29 Robert James

A lot of talk last year centered around how linebackers Jamar Williams and Dale Robinson would fare about the Trojan tight ends and running backs. Reggie Bush and LenDale White answered those questions by helping the Trojan offense to 45 points against the Sun Devils. Robinson looked extremely ordinary during that game, but he's been far from that against most other opposition. By far the team's best defensive player, Robinson's 36 tackles lead the team, as do his seven and a half tackles for loss. He's also added two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. There is little doubt that Robinson remembers last year's loss to the Trojans, but whether or not things will be different this year remains to be seen. Jamar Williams lines up alongside Robinson and he's added 17 tackles of his own, to go along with a sack, a forced fumble and an interception. Robert James will get the start at the other linebacker spot. He saw action in ten games last year but is the least experienced of the linebackers. He has 15 tackles on the year, with a sack, an interception and leads the team with four pass deflections. These are some quick, athletic and strong linebackers, but there hasn't been a linebacking corps in the country that has been able to contain Reggie Bush and LenDale White for a full game.

Cornerbacks – #23 Josh Golden, #8 Keno Walter-White

Josh Golden and Keno Walter-White come on down. You're the next contestants on the "Passes Left," the fabulous passing game where Matt Leinart bids on his second Heisman Trophy. And this comes just one week after the Sun Devil defense was burned for 381 yards through the air by the Oregon State Beavers. Josh Golden is the more experienced of the two, having started all 12 games for the Sun Devil's last season, and he's also one of the fastest players on the team. He has 11 tackles, an interception, two pass deflections and a fumble recovery. Keno Walter-White gets the start at the other cornerback position, filling in for R.J. Oliver, who was slated at the spot to begin the season. Walter-White is a junior transfer product out of San Diego and was listed as the fourth ranked junior college cornerback in the nation in 2004. Golden and Walter-White have done an admirable job this season. Even with the 381 yards allowed to the Beavers, the Sun Devils picked off three passes and Oregon State managed just one touchdown through the air. Northwestern's above average passing attack was able to put up three touchdowns, but only 236 yards, while playing from behind for most of the game. On Saturday, these two will look to derail Matt Leinart's consecutive Heisman dream, and I'll ask Phil Jackson about a tryout for the Lakers.

Safety – #2 Maurice London, #5 Zach Catanese

Maurice London and Zach Catanese are both junior college transfers and make up a completely different safety tandem than the one that failed miserably at the Coliseum last season. London is in his second year at Arizona State and found playing time on special teams last season. Catanese enrolled during the spring and immediately inserted himself into the starting lineup. Catanese and London rank second and third on the team in tackles (Catanese has 32, London has 18). They are quick, physical and were able to hang with the kind of athletes that LSU put on the field. But while the Tigers may have great athletes, these safeties haven't seen the kind of schemes that the Trojans will throw at them. London and Catanese, with their limited play against sophisticated offenses, should be in for a rude awakening this Saturday.

Sun Devils on Special Teams

Kicker – #20 Jesse Ainsworth

Because of the potency of the Sun Devil offense, Jess Ainsworth hasn't been called on many times during the season. He is two for three this year, hitting from 26 and 27 yards and had a 47-yard try blocked and returned for a touchdown against LSU. Ainsworth has been invaluable in the kickoff game though. Much like Ryan Killeen of the Trojans last season, Ainsworth has forced touchbacks on 24 of his 32 kicks and could neutralize the Trojan return game this Saturday.

Punter – #37 Chris MacDonald

What the Trojans lose in kick returns, they could more than make up for in punt returns. Chris MacDonald has punted 16 times on the season and forced just three fair catches and one touchback. He is averaging just under 40 yards per kick and had one blocked and returned for a touchdown against LSU. If Reggie Bush gets multiple chances at returning punts, the Trojans will have great field position against the Sun Devils.

Kick Returner – #17 Terry Richardson, #16 Nate Kimbrough

The Sun Devil's kick return game hasn't been anything to write home about this year. Nate Kimbrough's 38-yard return is the longest of the year and the Sun Devils as a team are averaging less than 20 yards per return.

Punt Returner – #17 Terry Richardson

Terry Richardson has nine punt returns on the season for 82 yards. While the Trojan kick return coverage has had slight lapses on occasion, the punt coverage has been great this year, mostly due to the fact that the Trojans simply aren't forced to punt. Oh yeah, and the nation's best punter wears cardinal and gold.

Outlook

After a shaky first half against the Oregon Ducks, sports writers and analysts around the nation felt that the Trojans unveiled a blueprint for defeat on the Autzen Stadium turf. You know what? I agree entirely, and it's all so easy. So Dirk Koetter, Sparky and Sun Devils everywhere, here it is: A How-to on Defeating the Trojans. First, push your stadium decibel level up to around 180, about the level of a rocket launch. Then keep it there for three straight hours, no matter what the score, no matter who has the ball. Winning? 180 decibels. Losing? 180. Halftime? 180. Naturally, artificially, however, just make it loud. Second, get your punter, Chris MacDonald in this case, to hit a Trojan blocker with every single one of his punts. This will probably take some practice, and seeing as how you'll read this on Tuesday, you should start now. Third, petition the NCAA rules committee to institute new penalties. Since the Trojans haven't been able to stop themselves with penalties, there obviously aren't enough of them. Wear cardinal on your uniform? Back up 15 yards. Quarterback sports a beard? 15 more. Head coach smiles and high fives a player? 15 again. Heck, make it 30. Fourth, utilize instant replay, but make sure you've intercepted the feed going into the replay monitor and forget about letting the referee make a call on the disputed play. When he sticks his head into the booth, run a constant loop of Hakim Hill's two-yard touchdown run from the game last year. If you can do this, make sure you get plays reviewed like crazy. This could result in four or five potential touchdowns. And lastly, of course, just call off the game and reschedule with the Troy Trojans. As long as you're just using nicknames, that game looks great in the win column.

Sure, it's possible that Arizona State could pull off the upset on Saturday, but the simple fact is that the Trojans haven't yet shown that they can be beaten by the opposition. With a combination of emotion and freak occurrences, the Ducks were able to keep it close until halftime, which is exactly when the Ducks surrendered. This Trojan team is like a test from the Emergency Broadcast System. Sure, you may be able to withstand the first few seconds of them, but sooner or later you've given up, are covering your eyes and ears and just begging them to leave you alone. USC is relentless in the pressure they put on opposing offenses and defenses. For 25 games, no team has been able to stand up to them for a full 60 minutes of football and though this Sun Devil offense can score, nothing short of quicksand can permanently stop this offense.


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