Arizona State 101: Beat the blitz

WITH THE COUGS coming off a bye week, the Arizona State game looked like a fantastic upset opportunity for Wazzu. Alas, Oregon State beat them to the punch. So will last week's upset by the Beavers wake the Sun Devils up, or did it better expose the Sun Devils' weaknesses?

Cougars (3-7) vs Sun Devils (8-2)
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
10:00 am Pacific Time

WHERE:
Sun Devil Stadium (67,674)

TELEVISION:
Pac-12 Networks

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LINE:
ASU by 17

LAST MEETING:
2013: WSU lost 55-21

THE SERIES:
ASU leads 25-13-2

CF.C PREDICTION:
Cougs 35, Sun Devils 34

THE SUN DEVILS ON OFFENSE
Players to Know
QB Taylor Kelly: Old buzz: Mobile and efficient, Kelly is solid dual-threat quarterback. Recent buzz: The senior has been a bit banged up and hasn’t looked the same since returning from injury back in Week Seven. But he’s still thrown for 1,498 yards and 14 TDs and ran for another 263 hashes. Kelly and his backup Mike Bercovici have combined for 24 passing touchdowns against 8 interceptions this season.

RB D.J. Foster: Foster is ASU primary offensive weapon. He leads the team with 872 rushing yards (5.6 ypc) and has added another 527 yards as a receiver.

WR Jaelen Strong: Strong is questionable this week after suffering a concussion against the Beavers. He practiced Thursday, but was limited in contact. He is ASU's most reliable receiver and the one they target most -- by far. If he is ruled out, all the more pressure will fall on Foster.

Overview
ASU likes to play power football. They run the ball a lot, but throw it well enough to punish teams that stack the box. The overall balance creates a greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts effect. The Sun Devils rank fifth in the Pac-12 in rushing and seventh in passing -- but they’re third in scoring.

Strategy
From this chair, if Strong is out, WSU needs to put all their focus on stopping the run -- or at least containing D.J. Foster. Kelly is an effective passer, but the Sun Devils’ offense struggles if they don't have a strong running game working for them.

Key Statistic
ASU rushing yards: 103 against Oregon State. Despite 31 rush attempts, ASU barely crossed the century mark on the ground. Foster had 14 carries for but 51 yards. When forced to lead a fourth quarter comeback, Kelly was not up to the challenge.

THE SUN DEVILS ON DEFENSE
Players to Know
FS Jordan Simone: ASU's leading tackler is a former WSU walk on. The brother of former Cougar receiver Gino, he never really showed much as a Coug in his one season in Pullman, but Ball has found a way to get the most out of him in this, his redshirt-junior year and he went on scholie this past August. His 85 tackles and two interceptions are both team highs.

DE Marcus Hardison: Hardison is ASU's best pass rusher, and the primary concern for Cougar quarterback Luke Falk and the WSU offensive line He leads the team with eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss.

Overview
ASU's defense has been one of the bigger surprises of the 2014 season. They are far from dominant but with only two returning starters from last season, and a depth chart filled with transfers, the Sun Devil's defense was expected to be a disaster in 2014. Somehow ASU co-defensive coordinators Chris Chris Ball and Keith Patterson have steadily pieced together a pretty solid unit, last week’s showing against Oregon State notwithstanding. ASU ranks fifth in total defense in the Pac-12, but in a conference where nearly everybody has a potent offense, the ability to keep opponents within striking distance can make all the difference.

Strategy
The Sun Devils got completely run over by the Oregon State running backs last week. The Cougars won't get 247 rushing yards like the Beavers did, (144 of that total came on 78- and 66- yard TD runs), but Luke Falk should have a ground game to work with when he needs it. Outside of that, it is business as usual and WSU also wants to gash ASU on the blitz, just in a different way than Oregon State did. ASU blitzes between 50-80 percent of the time and for the Cougs, getting the ball away quickly -- and then piling up the yards after the completion is the path to victory. It’s hard to overstate that enough. And with nothing to lose, forget the field goal attempts and punts. Any reasonable fourth-down should be pursued, (not that Mike Leach needs any cajoling in that area!)

One other note: Simone has been a star this season for ASU. But certain plays undoubtedly caught the eye of the WSU staff this week in film study. When the Sun Devils throw the kitchen sink on the blitz and leave him as one of the only barriers, or the only barrier, standing between the opponent and the end zone as they did against OSU, it can be trouble. Simone didn’t have the sharpest hip turn nor display enough speed to be able to stop the Beavs on those two long TD runs in the first quarter. Simone went out in the second quarter last week with a stinger but ASU coach Todd Graham said this week he’ll healthy and fully ready to go Saturday against the Cougs.

Key Statistic
Only 14 passing touchdowns surrendered: ASU ranks second in the conference in passing TDs allowed. Falk has his work cut out for him, but it should be noted that Oregon State had only given up seven TD passes all season before the rookie got a crack at them and zipped off five scoring strikes.

THE SUN DEVILS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
The Sun Devils return units haven't been anything special this year, but kicker Zane Gonzales is 18-for-22 this season.

FINAL THOUGHT
  • It is hard to believe a team could be exposed as a fraud this late in the year, but ASU might actually have some serious flaws. The defense has masked its weaknesses very effectively this season -- and especially during a five-game win streak before things came crashing down last Saturday. It’s also important to note: ASU’s schedule has helped a lot. Skipping Oregon, as well as missing a quick passing team in Cal -- and playing Arizona and WSU in the final two weeks of season -- means the Sun Devils haven’t played the top four passing offenses in the Pac-12. Suddenly, a secondary anchored by former walk ons looks much more questionable heading into this WSU-ASU tilt.

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