Sacramento State (0-1, 0-0) at Arizona State (0-0, 0-0)
Kickoff: 7:00 p.m. MST / 10:00 p.m. EST
Location: Sun Devil Stadium
Point Spread: ASU by 35
TV / Radio: Pac-12 Network / 620 AM/ 92.3 FM
Weather Forecast: 102 degrees with 17 percent humidity at kickoff
Series History: Thursday's game is the first time Arizona State has ever faced Sacramento State on the gridiron.
Sacramento State's Last Game: The Hornets opened their season against Mountain West foe San Jose State last Friday night and lost 24-0. Quarterback Garrett Safron completed 23 of 40 passes for 192 yards but was intercepted twice. Ezekiel Graham led the Hornets with 49 rushing yards. According to Sun Devil coach Todd Graham, the Hornets missed two field goals and failed to score on two trips inside the Spartans' five-yard line.
ASU on Offense: Taylor Kelly embarks on his second season as the Sun Devils' starting quarterback and he'll do so in the friendly confines of Sun Devil Stadium. Last year, the Sun Devils were a perfect 8-0 when Kelly did not throw an interception and a dismal 0-5 when he did.
Marion Grice and D.J. Foster will line up at tailback although Foster will see time as a slot receiver. The Sun Devil coaching staff views Foster as an all-purpose weapon whereas Grice is seen as a grind-it-out runner with big play ability. If the Sun Devils take a big lead, expect Deantre Lewis or Kyle Middlebrooks to take carries at well.
At receiver, Jaelen Strong will make a much anticipated debut opposite Kevin Ozier. The receiving corps was Arizona State's worst offensive group last year, but Todd Graham reeled in an impressive recruiting class that will draw plenty of attention early on in the season. Freshman Ellis (E.J.) Jefferson will likely see playing time as will slot receiver Rick Smith, and rotational players like Alonzo Agwuenu and Frederick Gammage.
Chris Coyle is back at tight end, but offensive coordinator Mike Norvell plans on expanding the use of his tight ends this season. That means De'Marieya Nelson and Darwin Rogers will have an opportunity to show off the new developments in the playbook and bring an added dimension to the field.
Along the offensive line, Evan Finkenberg, Jamil Douglas and Kody Koebensky return as starters while Vi Teofilo and Tyler Sulka are the new faces in action. Teofilo will play right guard and Sulka will start at right tackle and Sacramento State will test the right side of the line with pressure early and often. It's important that the Sun Devils establish the run on the right side of the field to prepare the o-line for the grueling opponents on the schedule.
RB Marion Grice vs. MLB Todd Davis: Davis is the Hornet's best defender while Grice is arguably the Sun Devils' best asset on offense. Davis led Sacramento State in tackles last season with 103 after tallying 96 in 2011 and he should be priority No. 1 for Arizona State. If Grice can elude Davis, the rest of the Hornet defense will have a difficult time bringing the dark horse Heisman candidate to the ground.
WR Jaelen Strong vs. Hornet Secondary: The Sun Devils have waited a full year for a receiver to break out under Todd Graham's watch, so it would bring relief to the offense if Strong busted through with a big game against Sacramento State. Chances are, Strong will face man and zone coverage and will not go against one corner the entire game, so it's important that he shows his game-breaking ability at any chance he can get.
ASU on Defense
The Hornets present a unique challenge. Although they failed to score against San Jose State, last year's offense produced more than 400 yards per game and they return nearly every key skill player. That means Will Sutton and the defensive line will be tested on the ground as the Hornets know that's where Arizona State was susceptible last season.
Jaxon Hood will start at nose tackle and Gannon Conway makes his first career start at defensive end. Much has been made about improving the run defense and it starts with these two guys in the very first game of the season. We all know about Carl Bradford and Will Sutton, so let's find out how their pursuit of Terrell Suggs' sack record starts out.
At linebacker, Steffon Martin will play the Sam backer position and Chris Young could see reps at both Will and Spur to prepare him for the upcoming grind. Salamo Fiso, Grandville Taylor and Anthony Jones are three other players who will rotate in and out throughout the game. The competition is still wide open at both Sam and Will so a dominant effort from one or two guys could pay off in the long run.
In the secondary, expect redshirt freshman Laiu Moeakiola to start at the field safety position. The Sun Devils aren't sold on having Robert Nelson play safety, so Nelson and transfer Lloyd Carrington will likely split time at the field corner spot. Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor return as the anchors of the secondary at their boundary safety and corner spots respectively.
QB Garrett Safron vs. FS Laiu Moeakiola: Safron is a proven commodity at the quarterback position and he led the Hornets to the upset of Colorado last season. Even though he struggled against San Jose State, he's a dual-threat who can cause problems for an opposing defense. When given the choice, the Hornets will throw away from Alden Darby and toward Moeakiola ten times out of ten so the redshirt freshman knows he'll be given a true test. Todd Graham has given his safety the vote of confidence, and he has the tools to handle the job just fine.
RB Ezekiel Graham vs. LB Steffon Martin: Up until a week ago, Martin had a stranglehold on the starting Sam linebacker spot. But with Salamo Fiso's recent emergence, the Sun Devils aren't quite ready to remove the co-starter tag from Martin's name on the depth chart. Graham is a versatile back in the D.J. Foster mold and it'll be up to Martin to corral Graham when he runs in between the tackles. The Hornets' top option excels in space, but Martin must prevent him from getting to daylight in the first place.
Freshman Zane Gonzalez enters the fray as the Sun Devils' savior at the field goal kicking spot. Though he hasn't even kicked in a game yet, Gonzalez' 8-8 performance at Camp T sent Arizona State fans into a frenzy about the possibilities of having stability at the field goal kicker spot for the first time since Thomas Weber wore the maroon and gold.
Dom Vizzare edges out Matt Haack as the starting punter, but if the Sun Devils go up big, Graham wants the competition to stay open so Haack may get a look.
Sacramento State boasts punter Justin Weldon who has one of the best legs that Arizona State will see all season. Weldon averaged more than 46 yards per punt in his five attempts in San Jose last week and Rick Smith will need to be sharp in his focus when he returns the ball for the Sun Devils.
The Final Breakdown
Quite frankly, Arizona State has a talent edge in every facet of this game. There's no excuse for the Sun Devils to lose to an FCS opponent this year, and there's no reason to believe they will. Sacramento State is an improved Big Sky conference team, but they aren't in the ranks of elites like Eastern Washington. The Sun Devils have been chomping at the bit, and it's time to get out and hit someone with a different color jersey on.
Prediction: ASU wins 49-10