A game that was often overlooked during the summer suddenly looks like a must-win for Arizona State. The Sun Devils host No. 20 Washington on Saturday afternoon, and the Huskies have been shockingly good this year.
While the Huskies are coming off of two consecutive losses, they came against two of the better teams in the country, in Stanford and Oregon. Washington took the Cardinal down to the wire in Palo Alto two weeks ago, and hung with the Ducks in Seattle before Oregon pulled away in the fourth quarter.
What does this mean? The Sun Devils are in for a heck of a fight with a well-rounded team, one that is looking to rebound from two tough games, and just because Arizona State looked great against a bad Colorado team doesn't mean the Sun Devils can afford to overlook this weekend's opponent.
Matchup of the Week: The Quarterbacks vs. The Turnover
Both teams have veteran starters at the quarterback position, and both teams know how to force turnovers, but there's a conundrum when it comes to scoring differential off of those turnovers, and how each team responds to takeaways will likely win this game.
Arizona State has been remarkable at converting points off of turnovers this season. The Sun Devils have scored 68 points off of turnovers so far. That means every turnover Todd Graham's defense has forced so far has been worth an average of 4.5 points. That's a great number, and it shows Kelly is a mature quarterback who knows how to take hold of a game when momentum is shifted in his direction.
But Kelly hasn't been perfect this year, either. The redshirt junior has thrown six interceptions, with key ones costing the Sun Devils in losses to Stanford and Notre Dame. Kelly will have to avoid those bad turnovers, and to do so, he needs to spread the ball around more.
Too many times this season, Kelly has had to rely on Jaelen Strong to make big plays. Chris Coyle has been stuck helping out in pass protection, which has been dreadful so far, and D.J. Foster has been solid in spurts, but no secondary receiver has emerged.
When I say Kelly needs to spread that ball around more, I don't mean dump the ball to Marion Grice. He's a nice outlet, but Washington's defense is an attacking one, and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has coached his team to attack the star players on the opposing team.
Don't expect Grice to have much room to run after the catch, and don't expect Strong to be in single coverage much.
Kelly is going to have to find ways to make progressions or turn otherwise secondary options into primary targets, especially after any turnovers. It is imperative that the Sun Devils continue their high-scoring ways when they create turnovers, but Washington's defense has had its offense's back all season.
The Huskies have turned the ball over eight times, but only one of those turnovers led to points. Can the Sun Devils end that streak? If they want to win, they will have to.
On the other side of the field, Keith Price has thrown just four interceptions on 192 attempts so far, turning into Taylor Kelly circa 2012. The Huskies also have lost just four fumbles so far. Arizona State, meanwhile, has forced 15 turnovers, including 10 interceptions.
Everyone knows what Washington's game plan is; the Huskies like to run the ball, and why not? They have a stud running back in Bishop Sankey, the nation's leading per-game rusher. Just when head coach Steve Sarkisian has his opponent thinking another run is coming, he goes play-action and has Price throw to the best tight end in the country, Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
This is going to be a problematic day for the Sun Devils, who struggle to stop the run and also have problems against bigger pass catchers. If we are all being honest, then it's safe to admit that stopping Sankey won't be the answer.
But the Sun Devils can limit his big plays, and if they do that, maybe they force Price into an uncomfortable moment or two. This will be most important if Arizona State turns the ball over.
Washington will want to respond to a turnover by running the ball and taking momentum completely away from the Sun Devils, but if the defense can slow Sankey down following a turnover, the onus is on Price to make a play.
Arizona State has allowed just 28 points off of turnovers so far this year. Another big factor is how good the Sun Devils are at forcing three-and-outs. Arizona State has forced an average of six of them per game, and one thing a coach can't stand is when his defense gets a turnover and is on the field three plays later.
If the Sun Devils can force the Huskies into 3rd-and-long after a turnover, not only will it increase the likelihood of a three-and-out, but it will also put added pressure on Price to make a play, and that pressure is what the Sun Devils defense strives for. This team is as good as any at baiting quarterbacks into tough throws and then returning interceptions for touchdowns.
Safety Alden Darby is especially well known for this, and Price better have his eyes on No. 4 before any big play. There's no better way to ensure your team scores off of a turnover than to return that turnover for a touchdown. Darby will no doubt be left with the task of keying in on Seferian-Jenkins, especially on third down, when Price always looks for his big target first.
If Darby and the Sun Devils can bait Price into a poor throw or two, it will open up an opportunity to strike and could lead to a monumental win in the chase for the Pac-12 South championship.