In Week 9, the Buffaloes head out to the desert to take on both the meanest man in college football (LB Vontaze Burfict), and the tallest quarterback in college football (QB Brock Osweiler). But the Sun Devils are far from just a novelty team. They are in the funky position of both facing high expectations, while also having a head coach who is sort of on the hot seat. The Sun Devils are the favorites to be the first team to with the Pac-12 South, or at least to be the team that represents us in the Pac-12 Championship Game thanks to the restrictions placed on USC. They were only 6-6 last year, with a 4-5 Conference record, but the Pac-12 South looks weak going into this season with USC barred from postseason play, and with uncertainty at CU and UCLA, and with no way to know how Utah will adjust to playing BCS level competition every week. Basically, this means that the division is ripe for ASU to take.
In a fun little scheduling quirk, we get to face all of our division rivals in a row to close out the season, so this week of previews shall be known as ‘division week' (I know, I'm so super creative and clever).
Follow the jump just to see how much more clever I can't get!
Arizona State Sun Devils
This is a tough team to project. I feel a little silly doing these last few previews, because just about everything will have changed in the three months before this game actually happens. Especially because there are plenty of questions about this team. While he is projected to be pretty darn good based on the couple of games he was in last season, nobody really knows how well Brock Osweiler will perform this season. They do have an easy season, getting division games against USC and Arizona at home and missing Stanford all together (though they played them very tough last season, leading 13-10 going into the fouth). It isn't hard to see them winning 11 games, but you can also see them getting tripped up in a couple of places. I don't, however, see this game as one of those places.
Another team that will test whoever the coaches choose to play cornerback for us. The Sun Devils employ a shotgun, spread type of offense, that Osweiler looked good in last season. At 6'8", he's very tall for a QB, but it's a bonus in this offense because it allows him to constantly keep an eye on his receivers, even when they aren't in his passing lanes. At that height, he isn't as used to people getting their hands high enough to bat down his passes as most other QBs. Hopefully having some taller defensive linemen (like Nick Kasa, possibly Stephane Nembot and even Will Pericak) can throw him off a little bit. Up front, they ASU offensive line should be able to protect Osweiler pretty well. Anchored by Garth Gerhart (no relation to yours truly. He spells his name wrong) at center, they return all five starters and some pretty talented older guys. More than half of the players in their projected two-deep are seniors.
And while they operate out of the shotgun, this is a team that can also run the ball very well. They get a good push for the bruising, Cameron Marshall, but also boast some speedier guys that can hit home runs out of the backfield. Deantre Lewis will be back from injury at some point, and they can line up the very athletic Kyle Middlebrooks in the backfield as well. Marshall is a pretty good bet to go over 1,000 yards this season on the ground, plus at least 300 through the air. This is definitely not a one dimensional offense. It will be tough to stop them, and at this point (2 ½ months out), I don't think we can.
If the Sun Devils are going to be able to win the South, this is where they'll do it. They have the potential to have a pretty darn good defense. It seems a little cliché, but it really does start with Burfict at middle linebacker. People talk about playing the game with violence and this guy exemplifies that. He's a freak of an athlete, hit harder than anyone in college football and he will be a matchup problem for us (and for most teams). The guy can knock offensive linemen backwards with ease, he makes a ton of plays in the backfield and he can get sideline-to-sideline like few other linebackers. If we can get a pulling Ryan Miller on him on runs to the outside, we might have a chance to counter him, but that will be a tall order, even for Miller. I don't think our fullbacks will be effective against him, which isn't a knock on them, he's just far too strong and is a better technician than you'd expect from someone who can rely on exceptional athleticism like his. Again, we're going need to do a good job of getting Rodney Stewart out wide quickly with blockers in front of him to have a chance at getting by Burfict.
And did you know that ASU fields 10 other guys on defense too? But there's a reason why he gets all of the attention. Anyway, the Sun Devils run a 4-3 that boasts solid, but not great size up front. They do have some some defensive ends who know how to get after the quarterback. One of those guys is Junior Onyeali, who burst onto the scene last season as a freshman. He is shorter, but that gave him an leverage advantage last year. This is one of the few games that I'll be OK with not having Nate Solder on the left side of the line. Onyeali led the team in sacks and is just plain fast. And speaking of fast, they have another linebacker who is a tough matchup. On the weakside, it's looking like second leading tackler from last year, Brandon Magee will return. He was drafted by the Oakland A's and has until August 15th to decide whether he'll sign his baseball contract, or he'll return to the gridiron this fall. He's in camp with the team, which seems to me like he's planning on playing football, but we can always hope that he moves on. He's a very good linebacker who moves well through traffic and is pretty good in coverage. If defenses focus too much on Burfict, Magee can make them pay.
The secondary is the most suspect unit for the Sun Devils, but they should be solid. They lost star cornerback Omar Bolden to an ACL tear in the spring, and hoping he can come back sometime in November (though that's very optimistic). Behind him, they have some talented young guys, but they don't' really know who will step up. They do have two senior safeties who should help the young guys outside immensely. Eddie Elder is the guy that they're hoping will step up after a solid season last year at strong safety. Overall, this will be a tough defense to move the ball on. At this point, I really don't' know about this matchup. We'll revisit this one in a couple of months.
***Since I wrote this, ASU has lost Brandon Magee for the season when he tore his Achilles at the start of their scrimmage (again, thank goodness that we came out of ours healthy).
They are replacing just about everybody, which will be tough, especially with Bolden injured (he returned a kickoff for a TD last year). Their kicker, Alex Garoutte didn't have the best Spring, so that will be a spot to watch for the Sun Devils. They think they'll be fine with a punter who transferred in from a CC. I have a feeling they will still get solid production for their returners.
This is a talented team that really could win 11 games. I'm not sure they win quite that many, and I'm not 100% sold on them making the Pac-12 Championship game, but that has less to do with them and more to do with Utah, who I believe will be stronger and more competitive than most people seem to think. Also, injuries could easily derail ASU's season. They have absolutely no experience behind Osweiler (sort of like us...), and that could be a problem for them. I don't think we can beat the Sun Devils on the road, but this will be a good gauge of how physical a team we are. If we can move the ball on this defense, we should be proud. If we can return to Boulder having played ASU tough, I think that will give us a little confidence going into our little two-game homestand against USC and Arizona, which will be important. If nothing else, this game will show us just how far away from competing in the division we really are.