It has been 252 days since we last saw the Arizona State Sun Devils on the football field, when the Sun Devils squeezed out a 36-31 victory against Duke in the Sun Bowl. Fast forward eight months and the maroon and gold are back in the state of Texas, preparing for their toughest season opener since playing at Nebraska in 2002.
Dirk Koetter's team was blown out of Memorial Stadium on that day 13 years ago, but Saturday's game figures to be much more competitive. It has been lauded as one of the top games of the week, featuring representatives from the two best divisions in college football. So what do the Sun Devils need to do to pull out a win against the Texas A&M Aggies? Here are five keys to an Arizona State victory:
1. Protect Bercovici: Quarterback Mike Bercovici isn't nearly as mobile as his predecessor, and that could spell trouble with defensive end Myles Garrett staring him down. Garrett broke the SEC freshman sack record a year ago and only figures to improve this season. ASU's offensive line will need to be performing at a high level right out of the gate in order to give their signal caller the necessary time to work.
2. Control Carson early: Texas A&M will be relying on speed demon Tra Carson early and often on Saturday to get its ground game going. If Carson and company get what they want, the Sun Devils will be forced to temper their aggressive blitz packages all afternoon. Selling out to stop the run early on has benefited Aggie opponents in the past. Kevin Sumlin's teams are just 3-8 when rushing for under 150 yards since he took over in College Station.
3. Fast. Faster. Fastest: Tempo is the name of the game when Arizona State has the ball. Texas A&M's defense will be on the field a lot as a product of its quick offense, which leads to short turnarounds on three and outs. The Aggie D will naturally be tired, and it is ASU's job to force the issue and take advantage. If they aren't exhausted by the time the fourth quarter rolls around, the maroon and gold have failed. Of course, the same thing applies to the Sun Devil defense. Good conditioning will be paramount as Sumlin's team will be going at a hyper-quick pace all day.
4. Take advantage of all mistakes: With no preseason games or scrimmages, college football season openers are filled with head-scratching mistakes and errors. Saturday's game should be no different, especially with the Aggie defense playing its first game under new defensive coordinator John Chavis. There will be some confusion. There will be blown assignments. Arizona State needs to take advantage of every break that comes its way if it wants to get out of Houston with a victory.
5. Win the turnover battle: The simplest key is always the most important one. As stated above, this is each team's first game and there will be mistakes. As long as the Sun Devils' limit the giveaways, they have a great chance of winning this one.