Some people looked at ASU’s season football opener on Thursday against Sacramento State as a trap game, but the Sun Devils prepared accordingly and swatted the Hornets 55-0 to move on to the rest of the schedule.
Now the real challenge begins.
Saturday marks the beginning of a four-game gauntlet that many players, coaches, reporters and fans have been looking forward to since the offseason. The Sun Devils open with a blackout game at home against No. 20 Wisconsin, then follow with No. 5 Stanford, USC and No. 21 Notre Dame.
The attention is still on the Badgers (2-0), but as ASU coach Todd Graham repeatedly stated throughout the offseason, the Sun Devils are completely embracing the tough road ahead.
“We are focused on Wisconsin,” Graham said. “We get an opportunity to play the Big Ten Champion, then the Pac-12 Champion and then USC and Notre Dame, who played for the National Championship. We think that is a great opportunity for our program and great exposure for our program.”
ASU’s first test is a Wisconsin team that currently ranks second in the nation in rushing yards and has outscored its opponents 93-0 in its first two games.
The Badgers hung up 393 rushing yards in their 45-0 win over Massachusetts on Aug. 31 and followed it up with 387 rushing yards in their 48-0 victory over Tennessee Tech last Saturday.
The Badgers’ running back trio of freshman Corey Clement, redshirt sophomore Melvin Gordon and senior James White all reached 100-plus yards in each of Wisconsin’s first two games.
“We’re probably not going to play a better running team,” Graham said.
The Badgers are a true test for an ASU run defense in which Graham has not expressed great confidence. It’s all the Sun Devils have been talking about since they beat Sacramento State.
It’s easy to discredit Wisconsin’s prolific rushing performances because of the lack of quality of its two opponents, but senior safety Alden Darby said the Badgers’ rushing game is as good as advertised.
“They played two lower-division opponents, but still, you can see how easily they can put you to sleep with the run,” Darby said. “They’ll beat you to the top with a home run post.”
So where does Darby and the “no-fly zone” come into play against a ground attack?
“We got to be assignment sound,” he said. “I have to make sure to make my reads, and I can’t be doing everything. Guys have to fit their gaps, hit blockers the right way and the secondary has to be assignment sound, because we have to read the run but also read play-action passes. They’ll go run, run, run and then they’ll put you to sleep and play-action it to the top for a 70-yard touchdown run.”
ASU’s game plan is less complex offensively. Other than his wideouts and freshman wide receivers Ellis Jefferson and Cameron Smith’s health, Graham has little concern for his offense that doesn’t have much trouble moving the ball up field and scoring points.
Ball security and changing up the offense once again became priorities on offense.
“The key for us on offense is taking care of the football,” Graham said. “We must be able to establish the run and take what they give us. It really depends on what they do.”
For Saturday, Darby said he wants the Arizona heat to be 120 degrees while Graham just wants it to be as hot as it can be to favor the Sun Devils against a Big Ten team traveling from the North.
Other than the stage has been set for a blackout game that will likely feature a battle of which team can stop the other’s offensive attack the most — all in front of a primetime national television audience.
“We’re ready to go,” Darby said. “We’re all fired up. This is what every high school kid dreams of. This is the kind of the games they want. It’s the main stage, and we can’t wait to take it.”
- Badgers’ redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Ray Ball is the older brother of ASU freshman safety Marcus Ball. Marcus decommitted from Wisconsin as a high school senior and chose ASU instead. Marcus will probably miss the game against his brother due to a right shoulder injury.
- ASU is 1-2 in home blackout games since the Sun Devils started promoting them in 2011.
- ASU has a 2-1 all-time advantage over Wisconsin. The last time the two teams met, the Badgers blocked an extra-point attempt to beat the Sun Devils 20-19 on Sept. 18, 2010, in Madison, Wis.
- ASU wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander previously held the same position at Wisconsin from 2007-11 and still remains in contact with several players today.
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