Quarterback – #12 Rudy Carpenter
The Sun Devils appeared primed to enter the 2006 football season with the nation's best and most accomplished pair of quarterbacks. Rudy Carpenter, after leading the nation in pass efficiency in 2005, was headed for second string duty behind starter Sam Keller. That was, until head coach Dirk Koetter changed his mind and named Carpenter the starter. As a result, Keller now attends Nebraska University and Carpenter has somehow morphed into one of the worst quarterbacks in the Pac-10.
While the talent is still there, it seems that everything came a little too easy to Carpenter last season. Now, with opponents having more game film to study and more time to prepare for him, the Sun Devils' quarterback has regressed in each game so far this season. He started off the year with a bang, completing over 65% of his passes against both Northern Arizona and Nevada. He threw for two touchdowns in the opener and five more in the next game. But, he also tossed an interception in both of those games, which would serve as the tip of the iceberg.
Against Colorado, in the season's third game, Carpenter completed fewer than 60% of his passes for just the second time in his career. He wound up throwing for 248 yards and two touchdowns, but added two more interceptions as well.
Arizona State didn't exactly receive the best schedule to open Pac-10 play, but if the Sun Devils and Rudy Carpenter were going to prove they belonged at the top, early games against Cal and Oregon would serve as a measuring stick. But all it did was measure how far they've fallen from last season.
California forced Carpenter into four interceptions, a 44% completion percentage and fewer than five yards-per-attempt. They also sacked him five times.
Unfortunately for Carpenter, that's the best conference game he's played this season, as a week later, Oregon's defense roughed him up to the tune of six sacks, 33 passing yards on 6-of-19 passes and an interception. Carpenter's longest throw of the day went for nine yards.
It seems fairly obvious that the Trojans' best chance to limit Carpenter's effectiveness is to pressure him consistently. He hasn't shown the ability to escape pressure and he's also displayed a knack for forcing the ball into tight situations. If the Trojans allow him time to scan multiple options or they allow him to get into a rhythm with his favorite targets, Carpenter has more than enough talent to shake off what could prove to be two seriously sub-par outings.
Running Backs – # 19 Ryan Torain, #24 Keegan Herring
Ryan Torain has been a very pleasant surprise for the Sun Devils this season. After receiving just a handful of carries in the season opener, Torain has become one of Arizona State's biggest offensive weapons. He's a big body who can wear down a defense if he's given a decent number of carries, which is something that the Sun Devils have been working on more and more as the season progresses. With Rudy Carpenter's struggles, Torain has seen 18, 24 and 19 carries in the last three games. In the game against Cal, he carried 24 times for 191 yards and a touchdown. On Saturday, look for Torain to receive a number of touches, even if the running game is shut down early. He's strong enough to move the pile when hit early and he's emerged as a legitimate threat in both the running and passing games. On the season, he has 74 carries for 467 yards and three touchdowns to go along with seven catches for 81 yards and two touchdowns.
Keegan Herring is another running back who will see more than a few touches against the Trojans. He's quicker than Torain and more of a shifty tailback. He has 191 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries this season despite being somewhat limited by an injury.
Wide Receivers – #3 Rudy Burgess, #16 Nate Kimbrough, #17 Terry Richardson, #1 Michael Jones
Rudy Carpenter has spread the ball around fairly liberally this season to different guys at different positions. In terms of wide receivers, Rudy Burgess and Michael Jones lead the group with ten catches apiece. Burgess is a converted running back who was moved to the position to take advantage of his hands and ability to move without the ball. He's small for a wide receiver, but he has the speed to get open in any part of the field.
Nate Kimbrough has nine receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown this season. He's bigger than Burgess, but still not all that imposing, at 6-1, and 188 pounds.
Terry Richardson is the deep threat, and although he has just five grabs this season, they've gone for a 22.6 yard average and two touchdowns. He's more of a threat as a special teams return man, but he can make big plays in the passing game as well.
Tight Ends – #86 Zach Miller
The rest of the Sun Devil offensive players are good enough, but this guy is great. He leads the team with 17 receptions for 167 yards and two touchdowns. His all-around game has developed to the point where he is now a solid run blocker and he still has the ability to catch anything thrown his way. Part of the reason for Carpenter's struggles this season is that Miller has been asked to say in more to assist with the running game and pass protection. On Saturday, Miller will probably be involved early and often as Carpenter will look to him as his first read on several occasions. The tight end's lack of production seems to have a direct effect on the Sun Devils' chances of winning, so if Miller, for some reason, isn't thrown the ball over and over, the Trojans should have a good grasp on the Arizona State offense. Covering Miller and removing Carpenter of that security blanket will force the signal caller to make reads he hasn't shown himself capable of doing thus far.
Offensive Line – LT #62 Brandon Rodd, LG #73 Robert Gustavis, C #76 Mike Pollack, RG #63 Paul Fanaika, RT #66 Stephen Berg
The Sun Devils took a big hit along the offensive line when they lost right tackle Andrew Carnahan for the season. Stephen Berg is a converted guard who has been taken advantage of several times this season. Brian Cushing or a blitzing linebacker isolated on Berg is a matchup that the Trojans should attack. The line as a whole has allowed 14 sacks already this season, including 11 in the team's last two games. Rudy Carpenter is not a mobile quarterback, so if the Trojan pass rush is going to show up again this season, it should start to rear its head this weekend.
Sun Devils on Defense
Defensive Line – #58 Dexter Davis, #77 Michael Marquardt, #1 Jordan Hill, #50 Kyle Caldwell
The Sun Devils' defense has accounted for 19 sacks this season, and although the defensive line has received plenty of outside help, they can still pressure the quarterback from all four spots. Dexter Davis is the most active of the group, with 19 tackles on the season, including four tackles for loss and two quarterback sacks. The interior guys are quick and able to penetrate as well. 2.5 of Michael Marquardt's ten tackles are sacks as well as one of Jordan Hill's ten tackles. Hill has also added an interception this season. As a unit, the defense is allowing its opponents to rush for 153 yards per game and just over four yards per carry. But, they've allowed just two rushing touchdowns. Moving the ball on the ground will be the most difficult thing to do against this front. The Trojans' offensive line has proven that it can pass protect against just about anybody, giving John David Booty tons of time to find open receivers. If this defensive line isn't able to stop the running game, the Sun Devils will be in trouble.
Linebackers – #25 Mike Nixon, #51 Beau Manutai, #18 Derron Ware
The Arizona State linebackers are very aggressive and look to disrupt plays behind the line of scrimmage. Beau Manutai leads the team with 25 tackles from his middle linebacker spot. Derron Ware has been used almost exclusively as a pass rusher from his outside linebacker spot. He's the team's best speed rusher and leads the Sun Devil defense with four sacks and six tackles for loss. Mike Nixon is a true freshman linebacker who will probably spend a lot of the day in coverage. Look for the Trojans to try and attack him and take advantage of his inexperience.
Cornerbacks – #23 Chris Baloney, #4 Justin Tyron
Justin Tyron was a high school teammate of Steve Smith's before spending two years at a junior college and transferring to Arizona State. He has 19 tackles and a sack this season and has been a nice addition to the defense. Tyron and Smith will probably be locked up several times during the game, which bodes well for Tyron, because at just 5-9, he probably won't fare well against the taller Trojan receivers.
Chris Baloney is another first-year junior college transfer who has earned serious playing time in the defensive backfield. This season, Baloney has 15 tackles and leads the team with two interceptions.
Safeties – #19 Josh Barrett, #5 Zach Catanese
Josh Barrett and Zach Catanese form what is probably the most solid unit for the Sun Devils' defense. Barrett leads the secondary with 24 tackles and four pass breakups while Catanese is right behind him with 23 tackles, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Catanese has proven that he is a very good safety with the ability to step up and stop the run. His pass coverage leaves something to be desired, so if the Trojans want to pick on a safety through the air, it will probably be him. Barrett doesn't have a ton of starting experience, but he can fly and can cover like a cornerback.
Sun Devils on Special Teams
Kicker – #20 Jesse Ainsworth
Jesse Ainsworth has a fairly strong leg on kickoffs, forcing 17 touchbacks on 27 attempts, but he has struggled this season on any field goals longer than 40 yards. At this point, he's made three of five kicks, all from 33 or 32 yards. The misses have come from 44 and 49.
Punter – #35 Jonathon Johnson
Jonathon Johnson is averaging just under 42 yards per punt with a long of 58 on 19 punts this season. Just one has made its way into the endzone while eight have been put inside the 20-yard line.
Kick/Punt Returner – #17 Terry Richardson
Terry Richardson might be the most dangerous return man in the country. He's handling both kickoff and punt return duty this season and is excelling in both. On 17 punt returns, he's averaging 12.3 yards with a long of 48. On eight kick returns, he's averaging 35.2 yards, including a 100-yard return against Oregon in his last game.