Know Your Foe: Arizona State

Hod Rabino of DevilsDigest.com answers question on the Pac 12 South leaders

The better quarterback for ASU this week is?

Rabino- At the risk of sounding diplomatic I would say that it doesn’t matter if it is Taylor Kelly or Mike Bercovici playing and I expect Kelly to be the starter since his injury against Washington was less serious than initially thought and he was taking first team reps at Tuesday’s practice.

I feel that the Utah defense is similar in scheme and talent to that of Stanford and Washington, which were ASU’s last two opponents. Bercovici started versus Stanford and Kelly against Washington. Both expectedly had modest passing numbers as they each faced a stout front seven. Granted, Kelly is the better ball carrier but I don’t know if he can really do that much damage against Utah’s defenders. Bercovici is the better passer, but no matter who lines up behind center they are likely to be often under duress as they face a formidable pass rush.

All in all, I think both are capable of leading ASU to a win.

How can a team slow down the duo of Strong and Foster?

Rabino- Not an easy task for sure.

With Strong it’s all about being physical and getting good position on him when he is targeted. Obviously easier said than done when you look at his numbers. He usually doesn’t beat a lot of defensive backs downfield so that is one element that you probably don’t have to worry about as much. Naturally, I've seen a lot of opponents try to double team him which is probably the easiest answer to that question.

Defenses in recent weeks have been doing a good job loading up the box and stopping Foster, and I feel that just by the sheer ability of the Utes’ run defense they should find success in that area. Foster does an OK job running between the tackles, but running off-tackle, let alone in the open field is where he’s most dangerous. Having an above average quick linebacker could potentially slow him down on those outside runs. But again, out of the two ASU players I feel Utah has a better chance slowing down Foster than Strong.

Why has been the biggest reason for the defensive improvement in recent weeks?

Rabino- It really all boils down to the staff adapting their scheme to the personnel they had. Took a lot of tinkering dating back to fall camp and through the first four, five games of the year, but once the coaches figured that out this group’s turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable.

Specifically, what really helped the Sun Devil defense, was going to a heavier front that includes Demetrius Cherry and Mo Latu so now you have a defensive line that averages 315 lbs. and as mentioned against the front sevens they faced in recent weeks that physicality factor came in very handy. The defense now has a more traditional 4-3 look rather than the 3-4 look which employed a hybrid linebacker/defensive end (aka Devil backer), and that was another significant personnel adjustment.

Antonio Longino lining up at WILL linebacker instead of Devil backer gives ASU a more physical presence there and as a result his game has flourished ever since that position change.

ASU’s secondary is the strength of this defense and has generally played well even when the defense overall struggled. Now that it has more support from the defensive line and linebackers, this already talented group has been able to elevate their game that much more.

How will the defense try to stop Devontae Booker?

Rabino- The aforementioned physical defensive line has to occupy the Utes’ front five and make sure the running gaps are kept narrow and give the speedy ASU linebackers more room to operate and clog those running lanes. Forcing Booker to be more of an East-West runner can help the cause as well. Obviously, ASU’s success rate in controlling the line of scrimmage and slowing down Booker will be one of the biggest keys to this game. Undoubtedly, ASU has its hands full with probably the best running back they have seen and will see this year.

Give me an unknown player on each side of the ball that Utah needs to watch out for?

Rabino- On offense it would be wide receiver Cam Smith. Needless to say that much of the Utah’s defense focus will be on Jaelen Strong which allows the speedy Smith more room to operate especially with downfield routes that showcase his skill set that much more. Smith has been one of the bigger surprises of the year for the Sun Devils and is a legitimate no. 2 wide receiver in this offense.

On defense it’s Spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola, who plays as hybrid safety and is one of the leaders on defense. Does equally well against the run and pass, a sure tackler with good ball hawk skills.

Opposing fan bases hate Todd Graham because....? I enjoyed my interview with him at Pac 12 media Day.

Rabino- Usually I’m asked why folks like Todd Graham…

I think that some fans, especially in the greater Pittsburgh area, will never forgive Graham for leaving Pitt after one year which didn't help his vagabond image. While Graham has showed that he’s more than likely to be here at ASU for the long haul, you will always have fans bring up the carpetbagger card, so to speak. I think that talk continues to diminish more and more as of late, but some will hang on to it for dear life and thus will never give Graham the credit he deserves.

You’re not the only media member that enjoys interacting with Graham because he gives you a plethora of good quotes in a matter of just a few minutes. Now, some may not like him for that same exact reason and feel that he’s the epitome of hyperbole. So that’s another thing that can rub people the wrong way. But you know what? Look at how much Graham has delivered on from his introductory press conference’s statements, and examine the success and the turnaround this program has had in his two and half season current tenure, and show me a coach who does a better job of walking the talk.

The strength of the offense is? The weakness?

Rabino- Whether it’s the aforementioned talented front sevens it has faced, or Bercovici’s struggles in the read option, ASU’s run game has been generally struggling ever since week 4. Obviously not to the extent that it has cost them many games, but right now you would have to point that out as a weakness.

Conversely, ASU’s passing game, albeit with some modest numbers in the last two weeks has been doing well. Having wide receivers such as Strong and Smith have led the charge, but even running backs D.J. Foster and Deantre Lewis have been significant contributors this year.

The strength of the defense is? The weakness?

Rabino- The strength as mentioned is the secondary. Both safeties Jordan Simone and Damarious Randall are among the leading tacklers in the league. Cornerbacks Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown are some of the most improved players on this side of the ball.

In general this defense tends to have a “bend, but not break” element. Granted, at a 6-1 record that aspect hasn’t hindered ASU too much, but something to look for on Saturday especially with such a deft runner like Booker because as it is ASU has had more issues against the run compared to the pass.

Kaelin Clay will return a kick for a touchdown on Saturday. Yes or no?

Rabino- ASU’s special teams are another area where the Sun Devils have improved on quite a bit. They certainly have their hands full this week but I like how they preformed against Stanford’s Ty Montgomery who is a very gifted returner as well. So based on recent weeks’ performance I would say no for a kickoff return for a touchdown.

Predict what will happen and give me a score

Rabino- ASU’s fronts on both sides of the ball will have a fierce battle in the trenches to say the least. I don’t think ASU can win the vast majority of those battles, but I believe they can do just enough to put the Sun Devils in a position to win. As much as both teams' need to establish the run game is key, I feel that it will actually be the passing game that will be the difference here. ASU does have an advantage here, and if the offensive line can do a relatively good job in pass protect, and they have done so in the last two weeks, I really feel as if ASU could have a big enough of a day in the air to negate possible struggles on the ground. I also feel that ASU’s special teams will continue its generally fine play as of late and not lose the game due to this team area.

I see a grind out ASU win, not a whole of different from their last two contests.

ASU 27 Utah 17.


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