Know Your Foe: Arizona State

The toughest test thus far on Wisconsin's 2013 football schedule, the Badgers take their undefeated record and No.20 national ranking to Tempe to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils. Badger Nation gets the inside scoop on this week's opponent from Devils Digest publisher Hod Rabino.

ASU Answers 1, What were some of your initial impressions from Arizona State's shutout win over Sacramento State? How much did people really learn about the Sun Devils?

Rabino: There is only so much you can take away following a 55-0 win against a much inferior opponent. Having said that, the ASU offense was clicking on all cylinders and showcased an improved balance between the run and the pass, as well as fulfilling the higher expectations that were placed on its receivers.

The game started with the defense yielding a 16-play, 59-yard drive that ended in a blocked field goal, only to be followed by a dominating performance where they gave up just two first downs the rest of the way and controlled the line of scrimmage, again performing as expected. The team picked up where he left off last year in the penalty department, having one infraction for five yards - a delay of game, and that is a much welcomed trend. There was some concern having a true freshman as the starting kicker and his 2-for-4 performance obviously didn't do much to squelch those fears.

Overall, the positives easily outweighed the negatives but when playing an FCS opponent that is the palpable scenario.

2, How much better is Taylor Kelly - who threw for 300 yards and matched a career high with five touchdown passes – than he was a season ago?

Rabino: Undoubtedly his mechanics and technique have improved quite a bit, as well as his arm strength and he is as efficient as he was last year, which is good news for ASU since he completed 67.1 percent of his passes in 2012 and tops that category in the school's record book.

Kelly's overall improvement this season should be on display even more as his aerial targets at his disposal have increased in both quantity and quality with players such as Jaelen Strong and De'Mariyea Nelson. Furthermore, his level of understanding of the playbook and what is required of him is naturally higher with one season under his belt. As modest as Kelly is as a person, don't think he was surprised to see it all come together for him in the season opener, albeit in a typical no-win game.

3, Arizona State only rushed for 158 yards against Sacramento State. Is Arizona State's run game not that strong or was that not the emphasis in the opener?

Rabino: To me it was a classic case of taking what the defense gives you, and last week Sacramento State was stacking the box and bringing their safeties up which left the middle of the field wide open for the ASU offense to freely operate in and ultimately score. So this wasn't an indictment on how poor the Sun Devil rushing attack was and I still see the ASU offense as one that wants to establish the run early in every game they play. They also installed the Pistol formation which they believe will aid their ground attack.

4, Describe Arizona State's offense. What are the unit's biggest strengths and weaknesses?

Rabino: It's a very dynamic, high tempo and no-huddle offense that strives to establish the run early to set up the play action and large yardage passes downfield. It does ask its quarterback to create plays with his feet and often moves its players back and forth between the backfield and the line of scrimmage. As mentioned, it has been employing the pistol formation this year (although not on the majority of pays) to create more deception with its plays.

I feel the biggest strength of the offense is its running game, not only because of downhill runners such as Marion Grice, D.J. Foster and Deantre Lewis, but also because of a stout run blocking offensive line. Nonetheless and despite the quick release passing game, I see the offensive line's pass protection ability perhaps being the biggest weakness of the offense.

5, What were the negatives that came out of the season opener, if any?

Rabino: I'll preface my answer by saying that the 55-0 win over Sacramento State was naturally one that hardly uncovered any blemishes. However, there were a few aspects that stood out.

As we all know every team playing its proverbial cupcake game wants to get out of the game healthy, and ASU has seemingly dodged a bullet where one of its most important players on defense, linebacker Chris Young, left the game in the first half with a knee injury that right now appears to be nothing but a bruise and he should be healthy enough to play on Saturday. If for some reason that won't be the case, then this by far would be the biggest negative to come out of the Sacramento State game.

Special teams were somewhat of a concern going into the season having a true freshman field goal kicker, Zane Gonzalez. In the season opener he missed from 33 and 49 yards in an environment that had much less pressure than Saturday will present and against an opponent that will obviously be several notches above Sacramento State. Gonzales was near perfect in fall camp, but the question always remained what he was going to do in a game environment. The results of his first test were just average which is disappointing but hopefully for ASU not a prelude to Gonzalez's performance in 2013.

The second offensive unit showed much more of a drop off than I would expect, again considering the caliber of opponent they faced. The offensive line reserves didn't dominate in run or pass blocking which in essence set the tone for the way the entire offense played. This is perhaps less of an issue than the field goal kicker one is, but nonetheless a negative that did come out of that game.

6, What is Arizona State's defensive philosophy? How good is the unit?

Rabino: The coaching staff like to simply call their scheme "multiple" and that's not an evasive answer but rather one that accurately describes their scheme. They have at all times on the field a hybrid defensive end/linebacker (aka Devil) as well as a hybrid linebacker/safety (aka Spur) so it wouldn't be out of the norm to see the Sun Devils employ a 3-4, 4-3 and 3-3-5 alignment all in one game. The defense is one that is very aggressive and fast in nature, and one that tends to have its corners on an island which demands them to play a lot of press and bump coverage.

Much like last year, I feel that this team will rack up a good number of sacks and tackles for loss, and its secondary will prevent the vast majority of big passing plays from the opposition. On the other hand, their run defense is their weakness and needless to say this can prove to be detrimental not only against Wisconsin, but also versus ASU's upcoming opponents.

7, Where areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give Arizona State trouble? Where do you think the Sun Devils have the edge over the Badgers?

Rabino: The Badgers' physicality on both sides of the ball would have to rank as the No. 1 concern for ASU. Wisconsin naturally has a very potent rushing attack and a defensive line that is capable of disrupting the Sun Devil offense.

ASU's most obvious advantage would be its overall speed and athleticism, which fuel a very creative offense. The intangibles of a late kickoff, very warm temperatures and an early road test for a new coaching staff could also come into play in ASU's favor.

8, After winning eight games last year and a bowl game, how high is optimism around this team in year two under Todd Graham?

Rabino: There is a great deal of optimism around this year's team and quite frankly I think it's justified. You have several returning starters who certainly have proven themselves as upper echelon players in the Pac-12 in their respective positions whether it be QB Taylor Kelly, RB's Marion Grice and D.J. Foster and TE Chris Coyle on offense, as well as DL's Will Sutton and Carl Bradford, and DB's Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor. They provide a solid nucleus that just needed a few newcomers to plug in specific holes and/or provide depth and for the most part I can see that materializing.

Yet, behind the pure talent aspect, I really like the culture change Graham has brought to Tempe. This was a team where inmates ran the asylum under Dennis Erickson and now is tremendously disciplined, tough and focused all traits which are vital ingredients for success. This coaching staff is pushing every player, especially last year's standouts, to improve that much more so now you have a group of coaches and players who are as hungry and motivated to succeed more than last year. It's a group that truly believes that they can contend for the Pac-12 crown if not beyond that, and that optimism has had an infectious effect on the Sun Devil nation.

9, What is the one thing Arizona State needs to do well in order to win Saturday?

Rabino: Boring but practical answer: dominate the line of scrimmage. It's no secret that Wisconsin's chances of winning this week's game go up exponentially if they can establish the running game early not only because it's the undeniable premise of their offense, but also because it will shorten the game and the number of snaps the ASU offense will have to work with, thus taking them out of their high tempo element. Furthermore, while ASU may not be as run dominated as Wisconsin, it's hard for me to see them winning this game without having at worst a slightly above average day with their ground attack.

10, What's your unbiased prediction for the game?

Rabino: The Wisconsin game is the first of four games on ASU's schedule that has been labeled by many for months now as the gauntlet. Following this week's game, the Sun Devils travel to Stanford, host USC and play Notre Dame in Dallas. Needless to say that this stretch of match ups will define the entire 2013 season and it's imperative that if nothing else, ASU defends its home field during that time.

As mentioned this contest will provide ASU a very stiff challenge at the line of scrimmage. Their defense will be tested in what is arguably is their biggest shortcoming, stopping the run, while the Sun Devils' stout running attack and its offensive line is going to have its hands full all night, and then some, against a tough Wisconsin front seven.

All in all, I feel that this is a winnable game for ASU. Although I don't expect the offense to have an explosive outing, its superior speed and athleticism will prove a great challenge for Wisconsin. On the other side of the ball, I do think that the defense will be able to to do just enough to halt the Badgers ground attack and force it to pass more than it would like to.

My prediction is ASU 27, Wisconsin 20.


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