ASU Preview: A Competition Increase

After winning its first bowl victory since 2005 and finished with an eight-win season, the most since 2007, Arizona State, which will host No.20 Wisconsin on Saturday, is ready to take the next step in the Pac-12 South.

MADISON - After seeing its week three opponent cruise to a 55-0 shutout in its season opener without showing much on film, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen had an idea exactly what his counterpart, Arizona State's Todd Graham, and his players are going through in their preparation.

Hammering three opponents by a combined score of 148-0 won't reveal much about the two BCS conference teams matching up in week three of the season, but it's evident that both sides know the caliber of opponent they will be facing on Saturday.

"(The players have) spent enough time watching Arizona State, and trust me, (the players) understand the level of competition is stepping up," said Andersen, as No.20 Wisconsin prepares for its first road trip of the season at Arizona State. "I think they've waited for this moment. They're excited about the moment."

Just like the excitement that has been building since Andersen took over last December, anticipation has been mounting in the desert around that same time. The Sun Devils rebounded from a four-game losing streak that started in mid-October to win its first bowl victory since 2005 and finished with an eight-win season, the most since 2007. Arizona State fans have a right to be hesitant since Dennis Erickson – a two-time national championship coach – led the team to 10 wins its first season and four straight non-winning seasons after, but a one-sided shutout has Sun Devils fans anxious for the possibilities.

Entering his second year, Graham is hoping for more, and likes what he's seen. Like Wisconsin, Arizona State utilized iPads for film study. That in turn has helped the Sun Devils, at least in Graham's eyes, make strides as a football team and be more dialed in to the little details.

"(Last year) was a learning process," said Graham. "I like how they are working. I like their maturity. They are much more mature and calm on the sidelines during the game. I think we have made great strides as a team. I think we have done a great job with our guys by continuously working."

The Badgers (2-0) first trip to Tempe since 1968 is just the beginning of the gauntlet for the Sun Devils. After playing Wisconsin, Arizona State (1-0) travels to Stanford to take on the Pac-12 champions, followed by a home game against USC and then play Notre Dame, the national runner-ups last season, in Arlington, TX.

"We think that is a great opportunity for our program and great exposure for our program," said Graham. "We can take our program to the next level so I am excited personally … There was a great sense of urgency throughout camp. We knew exactly what we were facing in week two."

And in Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly, the Badgers know their young secondary will be challenged for the first time this season. In his first season as a starter, Kelly threw for 3,040 yards, ran for 520 yards and had 30 touchdowns. In the opener, Kelly tied his career high of five touchdown passes, completing scores to five different receivers with 2:16 remaining … in the first half.

Surrounded by three returning offensive linemen and an experience speed in a spread-offense system, safety Dezmen Southward classifies this weekend as a "huge test."

"Those guys can run," said Southward. "They can throw the ball. They can run the ball. They are very skilled, they're very talented and it pops out when you watch the film. At the same time it comes down who executes the best."

But if the Sun Devils make a push for the Pac-12 South title it will be because of its defense, which is ranked number two in the nation in total defense (167 yards per game – 4.5 yards behind Wisconsin). The similarities to Wisconsin don't end there.

Arizona State has a new defensive line coach in former Oklahoma assistant Jackie Shipp, who runs a similar 3-4 defense and has an All-American senior as its leader (defensive lineman Will Sutton finished with 63 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks last season).

Throw in the fact that Arizona State finished the season ranked third nationally in passing defense (167.92) and 10th in passing efficiency defense (105.45), leading the Pac-12 in both, and eighth nationally in fewest penalty yards per game (34.9) and 10th nationally in penalties per game (4.2), Wisconsin will be tested in areas it has yet to be tested.

"This is going to be a tough game, but we're going to prepare the same way we always have," said quarterback Joel Stave. "Watch film, practice just like we've always have. Go out there and expect a tough game, but we need to play well."


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