Match-up with Wisconsin could define season

NOWHERE TO RUN: ASU Junior defensive tackle Lawrence Guy (50) and redshirt senior defensive end Jamarr Robinson (55) take down Northern Arizona freshman running back Zach Bauman during last Saturday's 41-20 win. The Sun Devils' defense faces a much bigger challenge on the ground this week in Wisconsin junior running back John Clay, a Heisman Trophy hopeful and the reigning Big Ten Conference offensive player of the year. (Photo by Scott Stuk)

The ASU football team has taken two first-grade math tests to prepare itself for the SAT.

Ready or not, the match-up that the Sun Devils have been waiting for is finally here.

With two wins over FCS teams in 2010, no one knows if the Sun Devils are ready for their road match-up with No. 11 Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday.

“Obviously, Wisconsin’s program over the last couple of years has been excellent,” ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. “They are a good, solid football team. They are very disciplined, big and physical in all aspects of the game.”

However, redshirt junior starting quarterback Steven Threet won’t be fazed by the atmosphere, as he has seen it before.

Threet spent 2008 starting at quarterback in the Big Ten and played in hostile environments at Notre Dame and Penn State.

Also in 2008, Threet’s Michigan squad rallied from a 19-0 deficit to take down UW in Ann Arbor.

“It’s better to be 1-0 against them than 0-1, I guess,” Threet said.

That result won’t have much of a factor on Saturday’s match-up, but it can’t hurt Threet’s confidence.

“There’s some of the same guys and I’ve played Wisconsin before, but there’s a lot of different guys and we’re running a different offense; I’ve got different teammates,” Threet said. “Obviously it’s a different situation, but I’m just excited for the game.”

Often when a Big Ten team is matched up against another BCS conference team, there is a speed vs. power debate.

While it hopes to have a quickness advantage, ASU’s defense hopes to match the physicality of UW.  That may be hard to do, because the Sun Devils haven’t seen an offensive line and running back with this much power in awhile.

The Badgers offensive line is ranked by many publications as the best in the nation.

“They average 330 pounds,” Erickson said of UW’s offensive line. “We haven’t seen that, nor have we really seen that since I’ve been here. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us, but we’re excited about it.”

The most comparable team to UW in the Pac-10 is Stanford.  ASU struggled with the Cardinal’s power in a loss last season.

In that loss, ASU struggled to tackle running back Toby Gerhart.

While Gerhart was an outstanding back in his own right, ASU will have to tackle UW senior back John Clay who is at least 20 pounds heavier than Gerhart.

“When you have a 250-pound guy coming at you, it would be best to have more than one guy there tackling him,” Erickson said. “You have to have a lot of guys around the football. When he gets going north and south up the field on you, then you have some issues.”

A major key to stopping the run will be how the ASU defensive line and linebackers perform.  The Sun Devils have been limited in their depth on the defensive line, so UW may try and wear down the Sun Devils.

ASU should get  sophomores Toa Tuitea and Corey Adams back from injury for Saturday, but they have yet to play a snap from scrimmage this season and are unproven.

“Hopefully we can be solid in there and stay in our gaps,” Erickson said. “We have to get people to [Clay] and keep him corralled.”

Another key to the ASU defense’s success will be discipline on the play action pass that UW loves to run.  ASU’s linebackers have often bit on play fakes and been a bit undisciplined.

“If we make as many mistakes as we did against NAU, we won’t be happy with the result,” Erickson said.

There is one factor ASU has working in its favor. It has no pressure. Wisconsin is widely expected to win, and the Sun Devils are excited for the challenge.

“Their fans are unbelievable and it’s an event,” Erickson said. “It will be packed and we are looking forward to going there. We are going to have to work on some things in terms of the noise, but our players are looking forward to going down there and playing.”

Reach the reporter at andrew.gruman@asu.edu