10 answers to help understand the Devils

THE SUN DEVILS come into Martin Stadium tonight feeling pretty good about themselves. They're nearly a two-TD favorite, and have won their last three Pac-12 games in blowout fashion, putting an average of 58 points on the scoreboard. We wanted to know more about this budding juggernaut from an ASU insider so we went to Hod Rabino at DevilsDigest.com with 10 key questions.

1. Cougfan.com: In both of ASU's losses, as well as in some other wins, the Sun Devils have shown a particular ability to score a lot of points in the fourth quarter -- what's behind that?

Rabino: ASU is a team that prides itself on a very high-pace offense, maybe second only to Oregon in the Pac-12, as well as a very quick and aggressive defense, which naturally requires a high level of conditioning. So I feel that if the offense is able to maintain that desired high pace they are able to wear down defenses in the second half, while the ASU defense is able to be fresher than the offense it faces in the fourth quarter.

Furthermore, a lot of ASU's victories were really decided already in the beginning of the fourth quarter so that forced the opponent to take more chances on both sides of the ball which led to turnovers and errors that ASU was able to capitalize on during several occasions.

2. Cougfan.com: For Coug fans who may not have studied ASU in exacting detail, describe the ins and outs of the Sun Devil offense.

Rabino: It's an offense that, as innovative as it is, is also an old-school scheme that is very much predicated on the run to set up the pass. Effective downhill running allows the play action to be effective and the single coverage on wide receivers when defenses load the box creates very desirable match ups.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly is a true dual threat signal caller who despite having lower efficiency numbers than last year has truly improved his skills and his technique to become a better passer. He's averaging over 300 yards passing a game which shows his progression from 2012. He is a very capable runner whether via designed plays or when the play breaks down and does very well in zone read situations.

At running back, Marion Grice is the nation's leading scorer in both rushing TDs (12) and scoring (15.4) as well as being No. 10 nationally in all-purpose yards. Thus, the senior is as versatile as he is dynamic and just a true threat anytime the ball is in his hands, although with his smooth running style he isn't a speed burner by any means. With a deep and talented group of running backs in the Pac-12 he isn't always mentioned as one of the best but in 2013 he has proved as valuable to his team as any other player in the conference.

In the passing game, a much-heralded junior college transfer, wide receiver Jaelen Strong, has the hit the ground running and exceeded the lofty expectation placed on him. He has already established a strong connection with Kelly, especially on the back shoulder fade routes, and simply gives ASU a very reliable passing game target -- he averages nearly 98 yards per game. Strong is a physical receiver, no pun intended, who is still very raw technique-wise but he's enormously gifted and can display surprising speed in the open field.

Running back/wide receiver D.J. Foster and tight end Chris Coyle round out the primary weapons on this ASU offense.

3. Cougfan.com: Same thing on defense, and including their base to the some of the varying looks they've shown in games this season.

Rabino: ASU's scheme on this side of the ball is hard to define and truly is multiple. The Devil ‘backer role, mainly occupied by Carl Bradford, is a hybrid defensive end/linebacker that allows ASU to shift quickly between 3-4 and 4-3 looks. At linebacker the hybrid linebacker/safety role (aka Spur) allows ASU to show a 3-3-5 alignment at times, let alone a repeated nickel defense look. It's a defense that isn't shy of applying pressure often, let alone dialing up blitzes repeatedly and will leave its cornerbacks on an island for most of the game as they play press and bump coverage.

Defensive lineman Will Sutton, as well as Bradford, anchor the defensive line and are the primary pass rushers on it, although through seven games, each also had their fair share of struggles in this department to say the least.

At linebacker, there have been a lot of moving parts but one immoveable object is Chris Young, who has been shuttling between the Spur and WILL roles all year long. The senior is naturally a very versatile player whose quickness and aggression allows him to play the run and the pass effectively.

The secondary features two seniors, safety Alden Darby and cornerback Osahon Irabor, who serve as the experienced veterans to the several newcomers and less-tested players around them. Both have been the main reason for the pass defense's success this season.

4. Cougfan.com: DT Will Sutton, deservedly, gets a lot of press but another guy on that defensive line, DE Carl Bradford, leads the team in sacks and TFL with 4.5 and 9.5, respectively. Talk about those two guys and what they've done this season.

Rabino: Bradford is playing better than Sutton this season, although I would say that Bradford has only truly been coming on strongly for the last three games. As mentioned earlier, he's a very versatile defender whose ideal combination of strength and speed is serving him well against the pass and run.

Sutton's production has been perhaps the biggest unpleasant surprise of the year. In fairness to him, he has been frequently double teamed by very physical offensive lines such as those of Wisconsin and Stanford and with his teammates not being able to step up and capitalize on the opponent's strategy, the senior's struggles have been manifested that much more. In recent weeks he has been able to play better but suffice to say that coaches and fans alike are still expecting him to dominate the line of scrimmage like he did regularly did in 2012.

5. Cougfan.com: What's the skinny on QB Taylor Kelly and other players CougFans should watch for on both offense and defense?

Rabino: The players to watch on offense, aside from Kelly of course are Grice and Strong. Chris Coyle is a very sure-handed receiver with above average speed and athleticism for a 6-3, 240-pounder and is a legitimate receiving threat. D.J. Foster's biggest strength is his versatility and he is very dangerous in the open field and tacking on yards after a catch.

On defense we talked about Sutton, Bradford and Young in the front seven. I would also mention defensive linemen Gannon Conway and Davon Coleman who both are probably stronger against the run than the aforementioned tandem and have really shined in the last couple of contests. Field safety Damarious Randall is a junior college transfer who has had a rough transition to FBS football at the start of the year, but this quick and aggressive defensive back is starting to come into his own as of late.

6. Cougfan.com: ASU has shown a lot of strengths on both sides of the ball but through seven games, what's been ASU's biggest weakness on offense and defense?

Rabino: On offense it has been their ability to successfully and consistently run the ball. Again, this is an offense that while explosive and dynamic makes sure that it establishes its downhill running before really being creative with the passing game. In their two losses to date, they ran the ball for 65 or less yards and that is no coincidence. Even though Kelly is a very good passer and he has very capable aerial targets, ASU's offense will be in trouble if Kelly's passing attempts are over 40 as well as 50, like they were on a couple of occasions earlier in the year.

On defense, it has been their inability to stop the run. Granted, two strong outings versus Colorado and Washington (in the latter contest they held the Huskies to -5 yards) helps the Sun Devils appear as just as average run defense team, but this is a unit that already gave up 230 rushing yards or more in three contests so it remains to be seen if they truly turned the corner or not.

7. Cougfan.com: ASU is averaging 45.4 ppg, and allowing 26.7. What are the primarily reasons responsible for that?

Rabino: In most games ASU has been able to achieve a balanced offense and have the running game be effective early on. Obviously the play of Marion Grice helps out quite a bit. And with the strong connection Taylor Kelly has established with Jaelen Strong, that has opened up the passing game that much more. Really, the diversity of the ASU offense has really kept a lot of defenses from successfully stopping them.

While ASU is second in total defense in the Pac-12, playing just seven games has helped sweeten the numbers. As mentioned, their run defense has been very problematic, just having issue with overall size and depth. Their pass defense despite not having an overall potent pass rush like they did last year, is doing very well and ranked second in the conference. Hard to complain that much about a group that is ranked No. 21 nationally in total defense, but suffice to say that giving up as many points as they are thus far in 2013 has been an unpleasant surprise. Now if Bradford and Sutton can truly revert back to their 2012 form (and Bradford seems on his way there) then I feel this group can really help ASU in all the challenging games that lie ahead.

8. Cougfan.com: How would you rate the ASU special teams, including their coverage units?

Rabino: Special teams have been a huge disappointment, aside from field goal kicking.

True freshman kicker, Zane Gonzalez, is second in the nation in scoring per game (11.4 points) and first in field goals made per game (2.1). So up until now he has been phenomenal and easily the steal of the 2013 class (and he signed after NLI day to boot).

ASU has already had four players assume the punting duties, including at times Taylor Kelly, and are averaging just over 35 yards a punt, last in the league. They have had numerous instances where their punt returner, Robert Nelson, made bad decisions and also muffed punts. Kickoff returns have been just average and both punt and kickoff coverage below average allowing opponents favorable starting points to their drives.

All in all, special teams have been a mess. Now, I know they worked a lot on this aspect during the bye week so I'm curious to see if we will witness any improvement on Thursday. Otherwise. Washington State should win the field position battle.

9. Cougfan.com: Todd Graham has accepted four head coaching jobs since 2006, never staying more than four seasons in any one place. Are ASU fans worried about him potentially leaving and what's your prediction on the length of his tenure at ASU?

Rabino: I know this will sound corny, if not borderline naïve, but I think his family is what will cause him to stay in Tempe longer than folks are anticipating. He and his family went through hell after leaving Pittsburgh following just one season. Graham admitted on several occasions that it was a mistake, which again he really felt bad about seeing how it affected his family. His wife's parents live in the Phoenix area so there in incentive to stay. Graham also realizes that he has some great resources to build the powerhouse everybody feels that can and should be built in Tempe.

Graham is happy, his family is happy and by and large he has already achieved quite a bit of success since arriving at ASU. Just don't see a reason for him leave anytime soon and I don't think fans are worried about that.

10. Cougfan.com: What do you see this game against Washington State coming down to, and what's your prediction?

Rabino: This is a contest that with two very potent offenses is in theory headed to a probable shootout, but often when that is the prediction the opposite does happen. You also wonder if a cold Pullman night, albeit a clear one, is all that conducive for a high scoring game with both quarterbacks combining for 800 yards of passing or so.

So due to the fact that I predict that the rushing offense for both teams will play a bigger role than some believe, the advantage goes to ASU. Washington State's overall defense has had more than its fair share of struggles, and I think that the Sun Devils should have one of the better games on the ground. Defensively, if they can scheme in a way that would limit the Cougars' passing game and force them to rely more on the run, this is also something that will play into ASU's hands. Additionally, I don't feel that the pass rush should struggle against Washington State's offensive line.

There is no doubt that this a better Washington State team than the 2012 version, but I still believe that their overall talent and deficiencies do give Arizona State a good chance to win a precious road contest. The spread on this game may be a tad too high considering this is road contest for ASU, but I do believe that the visitors will come up on top.

ASU wins 38-27.

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