Friday, September 7, 2007

Know Thy Opponent: Arizona State Sun Devils (1-0)

The itinerary might show Tempe, Arizona, but the Buffs are making a stop in hell as they attempt to start the season 2-0. After all, what other locale is home to (Sun) Devils, and temperatures rise to hotter than 100 degrees at night? Still, it's hard to look at the home of ASU as hell because despite the heat, it doesn't seem like punishment to spend eternity in Tempe.

Now Lincoln, that’s a different story. Any chance the Bugeaters would change their name to reflect their surroundings? Oh wait, that’s right, their mascot is corn. Need I say anything more?

After breaking down the Buffs’ performance against CSU, it’s time to focus on the Arizona State Sun Devils. Led by new coach Dennis Erickson and veteran quarterback Rudy Carpenter, the Buffs will have their hands full if they are to return to Boulder with their first road victory of the young season and avenge last season’s 21-3 loss.

ASU Offense:


Unlike a year ago, the answer at quarterback is simple: Rudy Carpenter. With only two inexperienced backups – sophomore Danny Sullivan and redshirt frosh Dax Crum – the offense depends on the third year starter.

Now a junior, Carpenter looks to recapture the success of his freshman year and put behind him the inconsistencies that plagued him in 2006. As a freshman, Carpenter led the nation in passer efficiency, threw for 2,273 yards, 17 touchdowns and only two interceptions…in only half a season. Compare that to the 2006 season when Carpenter’s accuracy dropped from 68.4% to 55.4%. The other numbers were indicative of a decline as well, with Carpenter finishing the season with 2,523 yards, 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

For starters, Carpenter will be happy if he can remain healthy in 2007. Carpenter played several games with a fracture in his throwing hand in 2006. Although the quarterback downplayed the injury, it inevitably had some impact on his effectiveness. And despite the changes in the coaching staff, head coach Dennis Erickson and offensive coordinator Rich Olsen have claimed that the offense will not be dramatically different than the one run by Dirk Koetter, thus easing the transition for the signal-caller. Carpenter had a very effective spring and a good first game against San Jose St, in which he completed 14 of 20 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns. Carpenter has a strong arm, decent mobility and a quick release. Creating pressure will be the key to slowing down the passing game. With enough time, Carpenter is the type of quarterback that can have a huge day.

Running back:

This is the aspect that makes the 2007 Sun Devils so difficult to defend. While ASU has traditionally been viewed as a passing stalwart, the best player on the 2007 roster is senior running back Ryan Torain. How good is Torain? In Koetter’s pass happy attack, Torain rushed for 1,229 yards and 7 TDs, with a robust 5.5 yards per carry.

Torain, a junior college transfer, is big enough at 215 pounds to run between the tackles, and his 4.4-4.5 speed provides him with big-play ability. In the first game of the season against SJSU, Torain ran for 123 yards, averaging 7.2 yards per carry and scoring three touchdowns. His rushing effort paced a ground effort that gained 250 yards.

In last years’ game against the Buffs, Torain only gained 80 yards on 18 carries. If the Buffs are to win on Saturday, holding the Sun Devils running back to 80 yards would be a good start.

Behind Torain is junior Keegan Herring and senior Preston Jones, brother of CU linebacker Brad Jones. Herring is a speedy back who gained more yards rushing his freshman year than any other freshman back in school history. Against the Buffs in 2006, Herring led the team with 82 yards rushing on only nine carries. However, Herring is questionable for the game after suffering an injury in the season opener.

Wide Receivers:

You would think that wideout would be the strength of the Sun Devils offense, but a quick look at the depth chart and at last year’s stats would reveal a startling surprise: the wide receivers did not produce. In fact, despite their aerial success, the wide receivers, as individuals, didn’t have much more success than the much-maligned group from Colorado. Last year’s top receiver, current NFL tight end Zach Miller, only had 20 catches. That’s right. Twenty catches. Even Riar Geer bested those numbers by four catches.

That doesn’t mean that Carpenter is lacking in talented, athletic targets. The most talented of the bunch is Rudy Burgess, who has played wide receiver, cornerback and running back in his first three years. Burgess didn’t play much in the spring because of injury and missed the season opener with an ankle injury, but the dangerous playmaker is expected to make his season debut against Colorado.

Behind Burgess are a group of wide outs that possess the talent and size of a dangerous bunch. Michael Jones, a 6 foot 4 inch target (who also plays on the baseball team) is sure to create mismatches versus Colorado’s short corners. He led the Sun Devils in receiving in week 1.

Other tall receivers on the team include Nate Kimbrough (6-1, 15 catches in ’06), Chris McGaha (6-1, 16 catches in ’06) and Brandon Smith (6-2). Add to the mix Kyle Williams, a speedy sophomore who led the team with 21 yards per reception in the first game, and the Buffs will have their hands full.

At tight end, 6-5 tight end Brent Miller steps into Zach Miller’s large shoes. While Brent isn’t the same type of talent, Colorado’s struggles against Korry Sperry in the CSU game could lead to more looks for the ASU senior.

Offensive Line:

If you are looking for the strength of this years’ Arizona State squad then look no further. This unit has everything you could hope for: strength, size, experience and NFL-level talent. Four starters return from last year’s team, and the fifth starter – senior right tackle Zach Krula – missed all of last season but has eight starts in his career.

The unit is led by senior left tackle Brandon Rodd, who is a two-time All-Pac 10 honoree. While the line is big, strong and terrific in the run game, they do have a weakness. This same collection of players allowed 37 sacks in 2006. However, the team typically struggled against speedy defensive ends, which the Buffs appear to be lacking at this point. A key to the game will be Colorado’s ability to stop the run and force Arizona State into passing downs where the vulnerability of the offensive line can be exploited. If not, expect a heavy combination of runs and deep play action passes that will keep the Colorado defense on its heels all night.


Say hello to Craig Bray. You might remember Bray as the one-time defensive backs coach at Colorado. You know, the one that all the current players hate?

If the Buffs’ defensive backs will be able to exact revenge on their former coach, they will have to depend on the offense getting the best of Bray's unit.

The ASU defense got off to a great start in their 45-3 thrashing of the Spartans. The defense only allowed 115 yards and forced two turnovers. But, despite their success, this is still the ASU defense. The group as a whole should be improved over last year, but at the same time, size and depth are lacking at some positions.

Defensive Line

If Dan Hawkins ever felt like tearing out a page of Gary Barnett’s RTD offense (some may argue there was only one page in Shawn Watson’s playbook) this would be the week. The Sun Devils D-line is not what you would call big. Easy for me to say, but then again, I’m not the one lining up against them in the trenches.

The ASU D-Line only averages 265 pounds, with both ends playing at 245 pounds. While the size of the line isn't overwhelmingly small, the Colorado offensive line should have an advantage. Only two starters return on the line, and in Bray’s own preseason evaluation, “I was disappointed overall in terms of the athletes and speed at all positions," Bray said. "But they're great kids and really worked their tails off." Now this could be coach-speak or an honest evaluation. I’m guessing that it’s honest since this is the same collection of talent that allowed 330 yards per game in '06.

Still, the team should be confident after their success in the first week and their ability to shut down the Buffs last year. Although this is a new Colorado offense, expect the D-Line to show up expecting a repeat performance. Watch out for sophomore defensive end Dexter Davis, who led the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks last season.


This is the position where the defensive has the most experience returning. In 2006, the Sun Devils went a little crazy and relied on three freshmen linebackers to play in all 13 games. What was crazy then looks brilliant now, as one of those freshmen (Travis Goethel) is now a starter, and the other two, Mike Nixon and Ryan McFoy, help out at all three positions. Starting at middle linebacker is JUCO transfer Morris Wooten, who won the NJCAA Defensive Player of the Year award. The other linebacker is senior Robert James.

Although the unit has experience, with six players returning who have played, the top two linebackers from last years’ team – Dale Robinson and Jamar Williams – are no longer available at the second level of the defense.

Defensive Backs:

The defensive backfield, Coach Bray’s “specialty,” is a bit of a mixed bag with questions at cornerback and answers at safety. The good news for Bray, three of his four starters are seniors, and the fourth player is a junior. The bad news: there is very little depth, and these are the same players that ranked 73rd in the nation against the pass in 2006. While the defensive backs didn’t have much to worry about last year in Boulder against Bernard Jackson, the Buffaloes offense looks different with Cody Hawkins at quarterback.

At the corner positions, seniors Chris Baloney and Justin Tryon are starters. Both have some size (6-1 and 5-10, respectively) and can run. However, each senior has produced little while on the field. Tyron did record 47 tackles and an interception in ’06, while Baloney had 2 INT’s in six games before his season ended due to injury. The cornerback situation was enough of a question that true freshman Omar Bolden got a look at the starting position during fall camp.

Whereas there is some question about productivity at the corner position, the safeties are a different animal. The group is led by senior Josh Barrett. Barrett, who stands at a solid 6-3, 230 pounds, led the team in tackles last year with 82. He is very good against the run and quick enough to help in coverage. On the opposite side of Barrett is junior Troy Nolan. Nolan surprisingly beat out Jeremy Paton, who was a star player during spring practices.

Special Teams:

One week after special teams propelled the Buffs to a victory against Colorado State, the oftentimes-overlooked unit could again play a key role against the Sun Devils. Arizona State is breaking in a new kicker and punter this season, and the team is also replacing their punt and kick returners.

Thomas Weber, a redshirt freshman, made his college football debut against SJSU. Weber made his only attempt, a 44 yard try, against the Spartans. Weber has a strong leg, but inaccuracy bothered him during spring and fall practices. At punter, senior Jonathan Johnson handles the duties. Johnson is not known for having a powerful leg, and only averaged 38.5 yards per punt in the first game.

Justin Tryon is the new kickoff specialist, and the aforementioned speedy Kyle Williams handles punt returns.

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