ASU vs. NAU Game Preview, Key Match-Ups, Prediction and More

TEMPE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 24: Cameron Marshall #6 of the Arizona State Sun Devils celebrates a touchdown with the fans against the University of Southern California Trojans at Sun Devil Stadium on September 24, 2011 in Tempe, Arizona. Arizona State won 43-22. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Arizona State (0-0, 0-0) vs. Northern Arizona (0-0, 0-0)

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. PST

Location: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ

Point Spread: ASU by 27.5

TV/Radio: Pac-12 Network (find channel here) / 860 AM

Weather Forecast: 100 degrees at kickoff, 20% chances of thunderstorms

Series History: This is the 39th meeting all-time between ASU and NAU. ASU leads 20-14-4.

The 2012 Lumberjacks: NAU is coming off a tough 4-7 season in the Big Sky Conference of the FCS division. That record is somewhat misleading, as the 'Jacks lost four games by eight points or less. Head coach Jerome Souers begins his 15th season in Flagstaff with a career record of 76-82. Despite last season's struggle, NAU returns 15 starters and come into 2012 with realistic hopes of a playoff berth.

ASU on Offense: As expected, all eyes will be on quarterbacks Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank. Kelly will get the start, but Eubank will still see plenty of action on Thursday night, and it will be the first meaningful game snaps for both. While Kelly was named the starter, ASU's quarterback competition is still very much ongoing, so it will be paramount for him to get into an early rhythm.

2012 ASU Season Preview

That task should be made easier with ASU's running game , led by Cameron Marshall. The Sun Devil offensive line should be able to spring Marshall for some big gains in what figures to be a quick night of work for the senior. Lots of eyes will be on true freshman D.J. Foster, whose electric ability as both a runner and receiver should cause NAU some fits. It will be interesting to see how ASU's other backs—Marion Grice, Deantre Lewis and James Morrison—are rotated into the game.

Another key area to follow will be the Sun Devil receivers. Much has been made about the losses the unit suffered from last season, and it's time for them to step up. The "leaders" at the position have been in flux during fall camp, with J.J. Holliday, Jamal Miles, Alonzo Agwuenu and Rashad Ross all having great moments and struggles. True frehsman Richard Smith has had a strong camp and will see time out of the slot. Chris Coyle, the team's starting 3-back, should also be utilized in a number of ways, including split wide, in the slot and on the line.

NAU will be running a base 4-3 defense that returns seven starters, but they ranked a paltry 84th in the nation in total defense. While two of their most notable players are up front in end Jake Brilbrey and tackle Tim Wilkinson, the rest of the front seven contains serious question marks that ASU should be able to exploit early. NAU is perhaps best off defensively in the secondary, where all four of their starters are juniors or seniors.

Key Match-ups:

  • RB Cameron Marshall vs. MLBs Austin Hasquet and Craig Frum: Marshall will shoulder the early load for the Sun Devils, and the 'Jacks linebackers will counted on to stop him. Hasquet is the team's starting middle linebacker, but he'll need help from Frum, the team's leading returning tackler, if NAU wants any chance of slowing down Marshall.
  • RT Brice Schwab vs. DE Jake Bilbrey: With the departure of Isaac Bond, Bilbrey becomes the top pass rushing threat for NAU. The senior finished second on the team last year with five sacks and has the skills to improve upon that total in 2012. Schwab returns to the ASU lineup after spending 2011 redshirting in order to get into better shape, and has impressed throughout the offseason. ASU will need Schwab to play to his considerable potential this year, and that first step starts against Bilbrey.
  • QB Taylor Kelly vs. NAU Secondary: Perceived by many as the "safe" quarterback choice, Kelly will need to show that he is more than just a "game manager" to hold onto the quarterback job. That means he'll need to make plays in the passing game, and in ASU's new offense, that means taking shots downfield. NAU has a very experienced secondary, and with his inexperienced receiving corps, this could be a challenge, but one to which Kelly must rise.

ASU on Defense: The mission for the Sun Devil defense is clear: stop Zach Bauman. The dynamic junior running back is coming off a 1,435-yard, 15-touchdown season, and he is clearly one of the top players in all of FCS football. A local product from Hamilton High, Bauman should have no problem ending his NAU career as the school's all-time leading rusher should he stay healthy. He has terrific vision and can create headaches for the Sun Devil defense, if ASU is not able to control the line of scrimmage.

Quarterback Cary Grossart was among the nation's most efficient, if not prolific, quarterbacks in 2011. He threw for 2,745 yards, 16 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, and is also a scrambling threat. He lost his top target from 2011 in Kalil Paden, but will have some intriguing weapons to work with. Despite his efficiency, the Devils would be wise to focus on stopping NAU's running game and forcing the action onto Grossart's shoulders.

The main story to follow when NAU has the ball is how ASU adapts to their new 3-3-5 defense. The new scheme will bring a much more aggressive mentality to the unit, but there will certainly be some mistakes as the players become more comfortable in the defense. They'll need to iron those out quickly in this game with a very tough September looming.

Key Match-ups:

  • CB Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor vs. WR Nick Cole: Cole was once an Oregon Duck and has blazing speed to complement his 6-foot-3 frame. The ASU secondary will have their hands full in attempting to keep Cole in front of them. Both Carr and Irabor have great talent, but have been plagued by inconsistency in the past. This will be a tough first test to show how far they've come.
  • DT Jaxon Hood vs. C Shane Moniz: NAU lost their All-Big Sky center in Alex Mott and Moniz inherits the job. He'll have his hands full along the interior of the line with Hood, the true freshman who has wowed coaches during fall camp, and will become just the fifth ASU true freshman to start the season opener. If Hood can be disruptive up front, ASU should have a good chance to derail Bauman and the NAU running game.
  • MLB Steffon Martin vs. RB Zach Bauman: Martin makes his Sun Devil debut and he'll have his work cut out for him in trying to track down Bauman. Martin has outstanding physical skills and range, and will be counted on to fly to the ball to stuff the NAU run game.
  • Devilbacker Carl Bradford and DE Junior Onyeali vs. OTs Joe Gurski and Trey Gilleo: We know that ASU's defense wants to attack, and Bradford and Onyeali are their two most dangerous weapons. Both have outstanding speed, quickness and strength to wreak havoc in the backfield, and NAU's tackles will be hard pressed to stop them. NAU struggled in pass protection last season, finishing 98th in the FCS in sacks allowed. Gilleo is an All-Big Sky performer who is shifting to right tackle this season, while Gurski will be taking over at left tackle. This could be a big game for the Bradford and Onyeali duo.

Special Teams: This is a mixed bag for ASU. On one hand, they have one of the elite return men in the nation in Jamal Miles, and other explosive options like D.J. Foster, Robert Nelson and Rashad Ross. They also have a very good punter in Josh Hubner, who is very skilled at pinning opponents inside their own red zone.

On the flip side, kicker is still a question mark. Alex Garoutte returns as the starter after holding off a strong challenge from Jon Mora and Dillon Jackson during fall camp, but still has yet to shake off the inconsistency that defined him in 2011. Another major concern is at long snapper, where true freshman Easton Wahlstrom has been very shaky during camp. He's looked better of late, but it's still a major worry.

For NAU, they are replacing both kicking spots, as punter Andy Wilder and Ryan Hawkins. Taylor Malenfant will handle the bulk of the return duties, and he was solid on punts a season ago, averaging 9.1 yards-per-return.

ASU's To Do List:

  • Start fast and put away the game by halftime. Don't let NAU linger.
  • Find success with the attacking defense and make plays in the NAU backfield.
  • Kelly and Eubank perform very well and avoid mistakes.
  • Be disciplined.
  • Avoid injury.

Prediction: ASU, 45-21

Follow me on Twitter @BDenny29 and like House of Sparky on Facebook

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