Game week is finally here, and nine months of preparation come down to this. Alright, so maybe it's not that dramatic, but the Arizona State Sun Devils have been impatiently waiting for the Thursday night opener against Sacramento State all summer long. Now everyone will get to see if this team really has taken the next step in year two of Todd Graham's reign.
The Sacramento State Hornets were shutout for the first time since 2007 last week, losing 24-0 to Mountain West contender San Jose State. But that doesn't mean the Sun Devils can look past the Hornets.
Last season, Sacramento State lost to lowly New Mexico State, 49-14, to open the season; the win was the only of the season for New Mexico State. But Sacramento State rebounded nicely, stunning Colorado, 30-28, in the season's second week. In 2011, Sacramento State defeated another Pac-12 program, Oregon State, by a score of 29-28.
The moral of the story is Arizona State just needs to score more than 28 points and it should be just fine.
In all seriousness, the Sun Devils should be able to score early and often on Sacramento State, and the Sun Devils front seven will dominate on defense. But there is still a lot to be learned in this game, and there is one thing that could hold Arizona State back, opening the door for a possible upset: the newcomers.
Matchup of the Week: The Sun Devil Newcomers vs. A Real Opponent
That seems so simple, but it's the truth. If the newest additions to the starting lineup and rotation struggle with their first game action, it could lead to penalties and turnovers, and that's when FCS schools like Sacramento State pounce.
Newcomers on Offense
Offensively, I'll be watching the right side of the line of scrimmage. New starters Tyler Sulka (right tackle) and Vi Teofilo (right guard) have loads of physical talent, but the Sun Devils rarely keep a tailback or tight end in to help in pass protection. How will Sulka and Teofilo handle zone blitzes, zone reads and broken plays? Communication is key in the trenches, and these two need to be on the same page before Arizona State hosts Wisconsin on September 14. Remember, while the offensive line has looked great during fall camp, they've also been looking at the same defense over and over again.
The Sun Devils also run one of the fastest tempo's in the country. While returners Evan Finkenberg, Jamil Douglas and Kody Koebensky are accustomed to getting set quickly and adjusting the protection from the line of scrimmage, the right side of the line will need to get any jitters and adjustments out of the way fast. Last week Sacramento State had just one sack and two tackles for loss. Anything more than that, especially against Arizona State's starters, should be cause for concern.
I'm also very interested in the development of the pass catchers. We know wide receivers Jaelen Strong, Ellis Jefferson, Joe Morris and Cameron Smith have the physical talent, but now we get to see how well they can read college defenses.
The Sun Devils aren't going to roll out the entire offense against Sacramento State, but you can bet offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is going to run a few complicated plays, if for nothing else than to test his young receivers. When those plays are called, will the receivers know when to break off of a route, when to curl back or dig across the middle? More importantly, can freshman like Ellis Jefferson take a hit while coming across the middle, something he admittedly hadn't done much of in high school. If the newcomers and quarterback Taylor Kelly aren't on the same page, it could lead to turnovers.
Newcomers on Defense
There are fewer total questions about the Sun Devil defense heading into Thursday night, but the one glaring question is the key to the season: can the Sun Devils stop the run?
Sacramento State senior running back Ezekiel Graham ran for 861 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2012, but San Jose State shut him down last week. Graham ran for just 49 yards on 18 attempts, and junior quarterback Garrett Safron didn't fare much better, rushing for 19 yards on 15 carries.
The Sun Devils surprised a lot of people by electing to start Gannon Conway at defensive end, relegating last year's starter Davon Coleman to a backup role. Coleman struggled against the run last year, but Conway is much bigger and should be able to hold the edge. Carl Bradford bulked up, as did Will Sutton, and this is their chance to prove that the extra bulk will allow them to stand their ground in the Sun Devils hybrid front.
Field safety will also be interesting, with Graham telling the media last week that Laiu Moeakiola would start if the season was already underway, but Robert Nelson and transfer Damarious Randall listed as starters. If Randall is healthy enough to play, Nelson will move back to corner, and this game will essentially be a tryout for Moeakiola and Randall to determine the starter going forward.
Moeakiola is bigger and much better suited to play the run, but if the front seven is holding their own against Sacramento State's rushing attack, it will come down to who looks better in coverage. I expect to see a lot of two-deep looks from the Sun Devils as they prepare for a pair of power running teams in Wisconsin and Stanford, and the safety that holds down his side of the field better, allowing the corners to play up, will likely earn the job going forward.
More from House of Sparky:
- ASU Hockey: Training Camp Standouts
- ASU Football: Todd Graham's Weekly Press Conference
- ASU Football Defensive Back Position Preview: The Next Man Up
- ASU Football: Week 1 Opponent Results and Recap
- ASU Football: Q&A With Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell
- ASU Football: The First Look at Sacramento State