WSU vs. ASU: Sun Devil insider weighs in

COUGFAN.COM ASKED SUN DEVIL INSIDER Hod Rabino of DevilsDigest.com to weigh in on all things Arizona State, including what’s gone on with the defense this year and why, how QB Taylor Kelly has fared since his return from injury, the two guys on offense Kelly looks for one whole heckuva lot and more…

1. Cougfan.com: Why is ASU so vulnerable to the run? The Sun Devils are 11th in the Pac-12, and got gashed by an Oregon State team that has the Pac-12's 11th worst rushing attack? Is it the blitzes?

Earlier in the year ASU had just an undersized and inexperienced defensive line and had poor play by the linebackers that opponents were exploiting every week. Obviously, playing against stout ground attacks such as those of UCLA and USC didn’t exactly help matters. Yet, when ASU moved to a bigger defensive front and made a change at linebacker with Antonio Longino at WILL, the front seven for the Sun Devils enjoyed a major resurgence. In the last four games before the Oregon State contest they gave up just 113 yards per game, which is far and above better than the first five games of 2014.

As far as last week goes, you did hit the nail on the head. The aggression of the ASU defense was more high risk than high reward than in recent weeks and Oregon State made the Sun Devils pay dearly not only on the ground, but also in the air. So I consider last week an aberration, and against a seemingly weaker Washington State rushing attack this weekend I doubt we will see this ASU defense give up 200 or more yards on the ground come Saturday.

2. Cougfan.com: Do you see ASU dialing back on the blitzing this week given (for the most part) how quickly Washington State's passing offense tends to get rid of the ball?

That is the $64,000 question this week. The ASU staff is proud of the fact that during the team’s five-game win streak the defense vastly improved while being ultra aggressive during that stretch. As mentioned, Oregon State did a masterful job exploiting that approach, and a high powered Cougar passing attack can certainly create some problems for the Sun Devils as well. So my guess is that will see somewhat of a more cautious approach that would probably have ASU blitz closer to 50 percent of the time rather than the 60-70 percent we have been accustomed to.

3. Cougfan.com: What's the latest injury report on Jaelen Strong and Jordan Simone - any other injury items of note? If Strong can't go, how do you think that will affect the Sun Devil passing game?

Simone was wearing a non-contact jersey on Tuesday so I think he could still play this weekend (Todd Graham has since said he should be good to go). Right now Strong appears to be the most serious of the bunch, since he was held out Tuesday, and Graham put the wide receiver’s chances of playing at “50-50” earlier this week. For good or for bad, the ASU passing game heavily relies on Strong, and there is no telling how it would fare without him. I personally think that quarterback Kelly targets Strong at an alarming rate and don’t know how he would handle the alternative.

Needless to say that without Strong both Kelly and some receivers who are normally less involved will all have to step up their game. (Strong practiced but was limited on Thursday.)

4. Cougfan.com: Talk about how much the Sun Devil DTs rotate and why - they seem to rotate a lot more than other teams.

Once ASU was able to develop depth at the defensive line, then the rotation became more prevalent than it was earlier in the season. Obviously the aggressive style of the line can take its physical toll, so the staff wants the freshest possible legs out there. At the same time, it’s much easier to do this against the offenses who frequently huddle. This rotation will be much more of a challenge against a fast paced squad such as Washington State.

5. Cougfan.com: It seemed the benches reacted completely differently in last week's ASU-OSU game - ASU never seemed all that fired up. Why does the weather seem to affect ASU so much? What impact do you think the 11 am MST (10 a.m. PST) will have on the game, if any?

Suffice to say that most of the Pac-12 isn’t used to the near freezing temperatures at kickoff ASU faced last Saturday. That climate is simply foreign and requires quite the adjustment for a warm weather team -- and that may have been the coldest kickoff on record for not only ASU but also for Oregon State. Obviously when ASU was doing well, scoring 21 unanswered points in the first half, that factor was never brought up. A horrific second half, that ultimately led to a loss, is an easy catalyst to bring up the weather factor and for that matter the letdown factor after a big win against Notre Dame.

A late night kickoff is usually an equalizer for a visiting team, because much like the home team they are up and awake at the hotel a good 10 hours or so before leaving for the stadium. Therefore, the home field advantage could be minimized to some extent.

On the other hand, a visiting team waking up earlier than usual and being more rushed in the morning, in foreign territory, to leave in time for the stadium could be a factor, let alone with a 10 a.m. PT kickoff which is unheard of. The crowd will probably be smaller and less vocal, again something that could curtail the disadvantages of being on the road, but I still feel that the early kickoff will adversely affect Washington State more than it will ASU.

6. Cougfan.com: The rumor mill on Todd Graham-to-Florida has cranked into overdrive since Gators coach Will Muschamp resigned. Coaches tend to leave doors open, or at least slightly ajar. But do you think Graham might come right out and say in the coming days he is not a candidate and will not leave ASU?

That would help quiet rumors which in my opinion are way off-base to begin with. He actually made a similar statement when his name was mentioned for the Texas job last year. Folks outside Arizona may not know this, but Graham is contributing $500,000 towards the renovation of Sun Devil Stadium which will be completed in 2017, so I don’t see him leaving before he sees this project, in which he obviously has vested interest, come to fruition.

I realize he is an easy target because of his job hopping history, but still you would think as he completes his third year in Tempe that his name would stop popping up for any and all job openings. Don’t be surprised if Jim Mora and Rich Rodriguez leave the Pac-12 years before Graham ever does.

7. Cougfan.com: Kelly (pictured above) threw a number of high passes against Oregon State - is that something new? Caused by the cold? Still coming back from that injury and getting his fundamentals back?

Under Kelly, every time ASU’s offense relies more on the pass, namely having Kelly’s attempts at 40 or more, the Sun Devils do ultimately struggle on this side of the ball. ASU is an offense that thrives when it achieves balance. Granted, you have to take what the defense gives you and Oregon State was smart to force Kelly to try and beat them with his arm, because for the most part he hasn’t been throwing the ball well this year and as mentioned, he targets Strong and D.J. Foster so often than the offense becomes predictable.

Graham admitted that he doesn’t know if Kelly is truly 100 percent back from his surgery on the broken foot. In his first couple of contests as the starter he definitely was still off with his play. It’s not only the mechanics that aren’t back to what they were in 2013, but also his decision-making each week leaves a lot to be desired. Looks like he was bouncing back in the big win over Notre Dame but the Oregon State loss was a significant setback for the signal caller. It’s anybody’s guess if Kelly can truly get back on track in his last game at Sun Devil Stadium or will we see the senior continue to struggle.

8. Cougfan.com: Do you expect ASU's running backs to get more than 21 carries (OSU) on Saturday against Washington State?

Simply put, they better have a busier day. My customers are sick of hearing this, and I just mentioned this in the answer to the last question, but every time ASU’s offense becomes more pass heavy under Kelly it tends to have less success. As explosive as ASU’s offense is, it’s still a run-first scheme and different for example, than the Cougars’ Air Raid attack that is explosive it its own right.

Additionally, ASU has to exploit a Washington State defense that may be somewhat stronger against the run than it is vs. the pass, but also one that surrenders 38 points a game and again you won’t be able to take advantage of the Cougars if your offense if predictable and one dimensional.

9. Cougfan.com: ASU has had a lot of success this season but we haven't heard a lot about the assistant coaches -- who has done a great job this season but might not have seen the limelight as much as they should?

Points-wise the numbers are down for ASU at 35 per game, and in a conference where seemingly every squad has a fiery offense the Sun Devils are getting somewhat lost in the mix, which is why offensive coordinator Mike Norvell may not be mentioned as often as he was in 2013.

On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Keith Patterson received plenty of heat for a porous ASU defense in the early stages of the season, but later was praised for being instrumental in turning this group around in the most dramatic of fashions during its five-game winning streak. Patterson also coaches the linebackers, which has been one of the stronger units on the team as of late.

In terms of non-coordinators, I would have to mention defensive line coach Jackie Shipp, who has considerably elevated the play of defensive ends Marcus Hardison and Demetrius Cherry, and helped develop true freshman defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood.

10. Cougfan.com: How do you think Graham's sideline demeanor impacts recruiting? He frankly comes off as an ogre at times on TV - during the OSU game it was easy to read his lips as he went off on some Sun Devil players. Is that a turnoff to recruits, a positive in they think he's passionate, or simply a non-starter?

What you saw on Saturday was an aberration. To Graham's credit he owned up to it right after the game, and said he apologized to his players for not exhibiting the high standard he demands from each and everyone on the team. You look at his body of work so to speak, and you know it’s a rarity for Graham to lose his cool on the sidelines like that.

Graham doesn’t sell the palm trees and pretty girls to recruits. Any prospect interested in ASU knows that he will be working hard more than playing hard once arriving in Tempe. So I believe those recruits can put Graham’s behavior in the right context, and again he never made any excuses for his conduct and you would think that this honesty is appreciated. Graham may be demanding, but he’s also someone that is quick to say that he himself is far from perfect.

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