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September 12, 2013

Walking the beat: Arizona State

The Badgers are heading out to Arizona today, and will take on the Arizona State Sun Devils this Saturday at 9 p.m. CST. To preview the game, I caught up with ASUDevils.com Publisher Chris Karpman, who was kind enough to give us some insight on Todd Graham's Sun Devils.

First of all, how much do we really know about this Arizona State team? You can ask essentially the same question about the Badgers, but what did you learn about the Sun Devils from their 55-0 win over Sacramento State?

Chris Karpman: I don't think we learned much from the Sacramento State game except that ASU's receivers are better than the very mediocre group it played with last season -- at least a decent group now -- and it is more versatile offensively because of that and more seasoned options at the tight end position, which it heavily relies upon.

Other than that, we're looking at a team that returns most of its talent from last season, when it went 8-5. It is the only FBS team in the country to return two players who each had 400-plus yards rushing and receiving and the only team in the country to have two returning players who each had 10-plus sacks and 20-plus tackles-for-loss last season.

So this team returns a lot of talent but there are still questions, particularly about its rushing defense and ability to avoid big play breakdowns in the secondary with several first-year starters there. Also, the Sun Devils have a true freshman kicker who missed 2 of 4 field goal attempts in the opener, so that's something to watch, and it has a walk-on punter who is sporadic.

How would you describe Arizona State's defensive scheme? I loved the article you posted where you defined the different positions, but could you sum up what Wisconsin fans should expect to see this weekend?

CK: The Sun Devils blitz about as much as any team in the country. Against most opponents they will blitz (five or six man pressures) at least 75 percent of the time. That's how Sutton and Bradford get so many sacks and TFLs. The upside of this they get a lot of explosive plays.

The downside to this is that teams can hit them where they vacate from and there is big play potential because there's more open space to be found, especially if teams max protect effectively. A lot of ASU's blitzes are run blitzes where it tries to be disruptive in the offensive backfield. Sometimes this works, sometimes opponents can run at ASU in the vacated gaps.

The scheme is very multiple. Within a game, depending on the opponent, you'll see a traditional looking 4-3, a 4-2-5 sort of look with one player -- which ASU calls the Spur -- as a hybrid safety/linebacker, and a 3-3-5 stack defense. That's actually ASU's so-called "base" defensive formation, but it actually uses it less than other looks. Bradford is a key guy to watch as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker which ASU calls the Devil backer. He will line up as an end with his hand down, as a stand up edge rush outside linebacker, or in the stack as a middle linebacker. The Spur (Anthony Jones or Chris Young depending on opponent) is a frequent blitzer who also has to be able to cover receivers in space to the field side and also be stout against the run and sometimes set the edge.

ASU is primarily a one-gap defense, which fits with its aggressive nature. It wants to gap penetrate, not read and react at the line of scrimmage while occupying lanes. Young is a key player. He can move around depending on opponent scheme and will probably lead ASU in tackles this season from his linebacker position.

What's Arizona State's biggest strength on offense? Their biggest weakness?

CK: Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly is an ever-improving player who set ASU records last season for completion percentage (67.1 percent) and pass rating and was one touchdown pass off the all-time single-year mark, and he accomplished that in his first year as starter and first year learning a new offense. He's accurate with good timing and a sneaky good athlete. ASU runs a lot of read option where he can keep the ball and also where he can throw the ball after a mesh point fake hand off, so it's really more of a triple or quadruple option offense in a lot of respects, which requires extreme discipline to contain.

Senior running back Marion Grice had a better per-touch scoring rate than any player in the league last season and is a weapon in the receiving game. Sophomore running back D.J. Foster is an athletic player who often plays in the slot and had 400-plus receiving yards as well as 400-plus rushing yards last year. Senior h-back Chris Coyle broke the school record last year for receptions by a tight end -- an impressive feat at ASU given its history at the position, which alums like Todd Heap and Zach Miller. ASU runs a lot of power and zone iso/split inside, much like typical pro-style teams including Wisconsin. So it's not really a spread offense. It's more of a two-back offense that likes to run downhill and use play action to set up the pass but also has the ability to use the full width of the field.

ASU hasn't demonstrated it can re-set the line of scrimmage and physically jam the ball vertically against big, physical defensive fronts, and also still has to show that its receivers, while better, can be effective against man coverage on the perimeter. Newcomer Jaelen Strong is 6-4, 205 pounds and talented, but still learning. Sophomore Rick Smith is much improved as a route runner, but diminutive and unproven against high level competition.

Everyone knows (or should know) about defensive tackle Will Sutton and quarterback Taylor Kelly. But who are some of the under-the-radar players that keep Arizona State humming week to week?

CK: Sophomore defensive tackle Jaxon Hood is a very solid player in the trenches as a 300 pound 1-technique tackle who can move around a bit. Senior safety Alden Darby is a team leader and very good weapon in zone coverages in particular. He's capable of making a key interception if opposing quarterbacks aren't careful. Young is an impressive tackler and playmaker at linebacker. Senior cornerback Osahon Irabor isn't an athletic dynamo, but has the most consecutive starts of any player in the Pac-12 and is very steady.

The key players will watch will be ASU's other starters, especially senior linebackers Steffon Martin and Anthony Jones, senior defensive end Gannon Conway and end/tackle Davon Coleman, redshirt freshman field safety Viliami Moeakiola, senior cornerback/nickel back Robert Nelson and sophomore cornerback Lloyd Carrington. If those guys play well, especially the linebackers and Moeakiola at field safety, ASU should do well. If not, it could be a real problem for the Sun Devils.

Finally, what do you expect to see this weekend? How well is Arizona State going to defend their home turf?

CK: Wisconsin is such a good rushing offense and ASU hasn't demonstrated it can really stop teams like that so I suspect Wisconsin will move the ball reasonably well in this game. But ASU is more dynamic on defense than Wisconsin, so it'll get its share of plays as well and probably get a few three-an-outs as a result. I would expect Wisconsin to score the ball relatively well, but ASU's offense looks better than the one that averaged 38.4 points last year, and especially plays well at home.

With more balance this year on offense, it's hard to imagine it'll be held in check against a Big Ten defense that looks relatively stout but not especially athletic. I believe if ASU takes care of the football -- a big thing to watch as Kelly turned it over at least once in all five losses last year -- it will win on the order of something like 38-27.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.

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