No. 20 Washington (4-2, 1-2 in Pac-12) at Arizona State (4-2, 2-1 in Pac-12)
Kickoff: 3:00 P.M. MST/6:00 EST
Location: Sun Devil Stadium
Point Spread: Arizona State (-3)
TV: Pac-12 Networks (Ted Robinson, Glenn Parker, Drea Avant)
Radio: 620 KTAR AM (Jeff Munn, Jeff Van Raaphorst, Doug Franz)
Weather Forecast: 85 degrees and sunny
Series History: For many years, the Huskies held a decided edge in the series between Arizona State and Washington. The Huskies jumped out to a 15-8 lead in the all-time record books, but the Sun Devils have completed a remarkable comeback and won the last seven meetings between the two schools.
Heading into Saturday's game, each program has 15 wins in 30 tries against their opponent. Arizona State will look to extend its winning streak against Washington to eight games which would mark the third longest winning streak for Pac-12 opponents.
Washington's Season to Date
The Washington Huskies have earned their stripes as one of the most surprising teams in college football this season. After beginning the season unranked, the Huskies demolished the Boise State Broncos 38-6 in the season-opener.
The Huskies followed up their first victory of the season by rattling off wins against Illinois at Solider Field in Chicago, against Idaho State at home, and against the Arizona Wildcats in Seattle as well.
With a 4-0 record, the Huskies stood at No. 15 in the AP poll and had a chance to knock off the then-fifth ranked Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto. Despite a valiant effort, the Huskies fell just short in their upset bid as the final drive ended on a failed fourth down conversion that left the score at 31-28 in favor of the Cardinal.
Last weekend, the Huskies hosted ESPN College Game Day on campus as the Oregon Ducks traveled North to take their offensive fireworks on the road. The Huskies kept things close for the better part of three quarters before the Ducks put Washington's hopes of a victory to rest with a 14-0 fourth quarter. Oregon won 45-24, but Washington's two consecutive close losses proved that it deserves to be in the conversation of Pac-12 powerhouses.
Even after losing two straight, the Huskies fell only five spots in the AP poll and they come into Tempe ranked 20th and looking to get back on track with another statement win.
Arizona State on Offense
"We're competing, the energy is great, flying around offensively and defensively," Kelly said. "Guys have a different attitude toward them, they're very eager to win and we got Washington coming in here and it's a big game."
Kelly only played the first half, but he didn't display the typical accuracy Sun Devil fans have grown accustomed to seeing. The redshirt junior connected on just nine of 19 attempts for a season-low 233 yards. It's important the Kelly rebounds this week because the Washington secondary is 16th nationally and tops in the conference in passing defense.
Their defense is really good," Kelly said of the Huskies. "Defensively, they've got some great athletes so we've got to come ready and prepared, watch a ton of film and come out and be physical with them."
The key for the Sun Devils to sustain drives this week will be their ability to convert on third down. Through six games, the Sun Devils are 54th nationally with a third down conversion rate sitting just above 41 percent. Arizona State will have a chance to boost that statistic this week as third downs have been the Huskies Achilles' heel on defense this season.
Washington has allowed conversions on 39.2 percent of the third downs it has faced this season and Kelly believes that moving the chains in these situations will provide the necessary lift the Sun Devils need to exploit the Husky defense.
"It's our third down conversions," Kelly said of the stat he pays the most attention to. "That's how we're going to put points on the board is keeping our offense moving and making sure we have 50 percent or above on our third down conversions each game."
For Kelly to kick his offense into gear this week, he won't be able to rely solely on Jaelen Strong. The redshirt sophomore has been a revelation at receiver, but the Huskies will do their best to bring his five consecutive 100-yard receiving game streak to an end. That means Kelly will look for tight ends Chris Coyle and De'Marieya Nelson to work past the linebacker level in passing routes and for freshman receiver Cameron Smith to continue adapting to the offense.
One of the biggest challenges this week for Kelly will be the multiple looks he sees from the Huskies' secondary. Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is among the best at varying up the looks his defense gives and it can give an inexperienced receiving corps trouble. Kelly's job on offense this week is to move within the pocket and recognize the coverages and reads more efficiently.
"They like to play some man, some Cover 3, some quarters and spread out," Kelly said. "Their front seven is solid, they have some corners and some safeties who do great jobs. They read the quarterbacks eyes very well, and I have to do a great job with my eyes down the middle and just trust my guys to get open."
Of course, the passing game won't be the only element Arizona State will look to establish against Washington. Sun Devil running back Marion Grice leads the nation in touchdowns and his 92-yard effort on the ground week was his best mark of the season. Grice averaged 6.8 yards per carry against Colorado and he looks like he might be turning the corner in the open field.
Grice hasn't had trouble finding the end zone, but his offensive line has struggled to find him running room in open space. Washington has a talented front seven and Grice knows there will be challenges along the way. Still, look for him to see touches early and move the ball effectively. If Grice can get to the second level of the defense, the Arizona State coaching staff likes its chances with Grice against linebackers.
Arizona State on Defense
The Sun Devil defense has endured its ups and downs this season and the past two weeks have displayed that perfectly. Against an offense that many consider mediocre, the Sun Devils allowed 37 points to Tommy Rees and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in a 37-34 loss. Then, against a team it was expected to dominate, the Sun Devils did exactly that in a 54-13 win over Colorado.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly how the Sun Devil defense will show up, but the players are beginning to settle in. Davon Coleman became a factor on the interior of the defensive line in Jaxon Hood's absence and with Hood's return from a hamstring injury, Arizona State now has options.
At the linebacker level, Chris Young is back at the Will linebacker spot this week and Anthony Jones appears poised to make the start at Spur. Steffon Martin and Salamo Fiso will continue to share time at Sam even though Todd Graham has made it clear that he enjoys watching the younger Fiso mature in front of his eyes.
Now that all of the front seven personnel issues seem to have worked themselves out, the secondary can get back to doing what it does best. Instead of worrying about over-pursuing in run support and having to compensate for missed alignments, the defensive backs can go back to their ball-hawking ways and that's exactly what they did against Colorado.
"Walking in and dominating like we did, to play as well as we did on the back end with all the takeaways and all the big plays, we're feeling good," Alden Darby said.
The Sun Devil secondary reeled in three interceptions against Colorado last Saturday and surrendered just 169 passing yards while holding national star Paul Richardson to just four catches for 39 yards. The unit is gelling at just the right time because Washington has weapons all over the field.
Jayden Mickens has emerged as the Huskies top threat at wide receiver, but the Sun Devils can't ignore Kasen Williams or tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Seferian-Jenkins is among the most physically gifted tight ends at the college level and he's a matchup nightmare for every team he faces.
"Washington is similar to USC, they have talent over there," Darby said. "They have guys that are capable of making plays and their six main players on offense, all of those guys could start on any team in the Pac-12 and they're all on one team."
The Huskies' passing game is full of weapons, yet Washington's top weapon resides in the backfield. Running back Bishop Sankey is responsible for the Huskies having the third best rushing offense in the Pac-12 at 248.0 yards per game. Sankey has a chance to go the distance every time he touches the ball, and Darby knows all 11 players need to key in on the superstar tailback.
"He can do it all," Darby said of Sankey. "He's fast, he can catch the ball out of the backfield, he's smart, he's tough, he's a well-rounded back. He's going to make you tackle in space and that's what it's going to come down to is tackling in space."
With so many game-breakers on the field at one time, the Sun Devil defense won't be able to take as many gambles this week. That means a lot of man-to-man coverage and a lot emphasis on taking care of responsibilities on each play. There's a few things the Sun Devils will need to hone in on when the Huskies take the field, and Darby says he's been working on cleaning things up.
"Communication is way more important," Darby said. "We have to know where guys are, we have to know where deep threats are, we have to talk routes, talk certain situations and read our keys."
Fortunately for Arizona State, the Sun Devils have the opportunity to take on the Huskies at home. Arizona State is 4-0 in Tempe this season and is allowing just 21 points per game at home compared to an average of 39.5 points per game on the road. The Sun Devils know they have an advantage, and Darby thinks the homecoming crowd and the team's mentality for playing in front of its own fans will make the difference.
"We don't lose here. We don't lose at our home," Darby said. "We don't want to walk around Tempe knowing that we lost a game here. We want to win and continue to feel good and walk around campus and keep our heads high."
The Final Breakdown
One of the most surprising elements heading into Saturday's game is that the Sun Devils actually enter the contest as three-point favorites against the Huskies. Washington played Stanford much loser than Arizona State did and it also hung tough against Oregon, so the betting line seems odd to more than a few people.
The explanation for why Arizona State is favored? The Sun Devils are a different team at home. Though Graham's squad sits outside the top 25, the Sun Devils are easily one of the country's best home teams. Whether the advantage comes from hot weather, a rambunctious student section, or the adrenaline that comes with running through the Tillman Tunnel, the Sun Devils' home success is impossible to ignore.
That's why it wouldn't come as a surprise if Arizona State knocked off the Huskies. For the Sun Devils to come away with a "W", they'll need excellent efforts from both the players and the coaches. Graham has admitted that the coaching staff has let the team down at times during in-game situations this year, and that simply cannot happen if the Sun Devils plan on beating Washington.
Steve Sarkisian and company have a little more wiggle room this weekend. The Huskies utilize so many offensive playmakers that if one or two have an off day, they can count on the others to pick each other up. Right now, the Sun Devils rely so heavily on Kelly, Grice and Strong that it would take a remarkable effort from D.J. Foster or Chris Coyle to make up for a rough day from one of the stars.
The best chance Arizona State has at marching to its fifth victory of the season comes through winning the turnover battle. Keith Price and Bishop Sankey aren't going to be easy to contain, so stopping them altogether by forcing turnovers is a goal for the Sun Devils. There's plenty of ways for Arizona State to score a victory this weekend, but right now, it just seems like Washington is too strong of an opponent to overcome.
Score Prediction: Washington 41, Arizona State 33