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ASU vs. Wisconsin: Matchup of the week

The Arizona State defensive line must play well against the run, but that's not the only position group that needs to step up for the Sun Devils this week.

Robert Nelson will be called upon again this week in run support.
Robert Nelson will be called upon again this week in run support.
Christian Petersen

The game one scrimmage is out of the way, and Arizona State did exactly what Sun Devil fans expected: pound an FCS opponent. Even I didn't see the Sun Devils shutting out Sacramento State, but after a disastrous opening drive on defense, this team did something it was never capable of pre-Todd Graham; buckling down and completely changing the direction of the game.

Now to the bad news. Bucky the Badger is coming to town and guess what? Wisconsin also hasn't allowed a point in dismantling two weaker opponents. The Badgers are a great Big Ten team, but does that make them a great football team? That I'm not so sure about, but Wisconsin has been to three consecutive Rose Bowls, even if their coach during that run is now in the SEC.

Still, this is a good football team, probably the third or fourth best on Arizona State's schedule, depending on how you rank UCLA and Notre Dame behind Stanford. This won't be an easy game, but it's certainly a winnable game, and a wonderful measuring stick before the showdown with a similar, but far more talented Stanford squad.

Matchup of the Week: The defensive backs against the run

Surprised? Hear me out on this one. The easy thing to point to is line play, and that will be important, as Wisconsin boasts one of the largest in the country. But the Sun Devils have the most athletic front-seven of any defense, and I believe that speed will give Wisconsin fits the same way Stanford's dynamic linebackers did in the 2013 Rose Bowl.

Arizona State's secondary versus Wisconsin's ground game

The Sun Devils have an aggressive secondary, and that was apparent from the opening snap last week, when Laiu Moeakiola burst into the backfield to force an incompletion. Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor both made plays in the backfield, and Irabor was especially impressive in redirecting any attempt by Sacramento State to get outside back into the middle of the field.

Those will be key factors again this week. Arizona State's secondary will quickly have to distinguish between run plays and play-action passes. Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave is not Russell Wilson, or even Scott Tolzien for that matter. He is mistake prone (two interceptions already) and doesn't throw the ball vertically with a high level of skill. But what Stave will do is pick apart a defense using the play-action fake, and when a team has three running backs over 200 yards already, you can be assured the play-action will be a factor.

The Sun Devils need their secondary to be aggressive early and aid in stuffing the run, thus allowing the Arizona State offense to build a lead and forcing Wisconsin to throw the ball vertically. Wisconsin only has one real receiving threat, wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, but he's a good one. The former walk-on runs great routes, has solid hands and is pretty big for a college receiver. He's every bit a future NFL receiver. The problem for the Badgers is that their other pass catchers don't scare anyone.

I'd look for Arizona State to mix up coverages early, maybe even bringing a few corner or Spur linebacker blitzes and forcing Darby and Moeakiola to play man coverage against the Badgers' receivers and tight ends. Darby and Moeakiola will also be let loose when the Sun Devils decide to drop into a zone scheme up top. The team will almost exclusively be in zone underneath throughout the evening.

The only way the secondary for Arizona State is a non-factor in the outcome of this game is if Wisconsin dominates the Sun Devils up front and the trio of White, Gordon and Clement run free all day. If that happens, the secondary won't matter, and neither will the offense, because Wisconsin will run away with the game.

Wisconsin's Secondary versus the Sun Devil Rushing Attack

Last week, Sacramento State committed everyone to stopping the run. The problem with this strategy is that nobody stopped the pass. Taylor Kelly routinely found his targets streaking down the middle of the field with no defenders in sight. Don't be surprised if that happens again this week. Wisconsin will have to rely on its secondary to play up in the box, especially if we see more option, triple option and motion looks with D.J. Foster and Deantre Lewis joining Marion Grice in the backfield.

For offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, the challenge is getting the ground game going so Wisconsin is forced to play up all night. Possessions will be at a premium in this one, so if the Sun Devils can grind their way down the field on the first two or three drives and put up some points, it will open up opportunities downfield when Wisconsin gets frustrated at being beat at their own game.

Wisconsin's secondary is slower, and this could prove to be huge if and when Lewis or Foster find some open space. Lewis in particular impressed me last week. I know the opponent wasn't good, but he looked explosive, decisive and healthy.

Sun Devil fans seem to have forgotten just how good Lewis was as a freshman before a gunshot wound nearly derailed his career. I believe he has surpassed Foster as the number two behind Grice for the time being, if only because of Foster's ability to play in the slot, allowing Arizona State to put five home-run threats on the field at once with Grice, Lewis, Foster, Jaelen Strong and De'Marieya Nelson. Plus, we haven't even mentioned Chris Coyle yet.

The Badgers are going to be prone to over-pursue, especially in the secondary where they are used to one-cut plodders in the Big Ten. The key to scoring touchdowns for the Sun Devils will be forcing Wisconsin's secondary to play up and then taking advantage of that with speed.

The formula should work, and it's the primary reason I like Arizona State to wear down Wisconsin in the biggest win of the Todd Graham era.

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