TEMPE- Two new coordinators, two starting corners without a game of division one experience, a coach on the hot seat and one of the most competitive conferences in the country.
This season was never going to be easy for the Sun Devils and on Saturday night in Tempe for week six, it’s going to get even more difficult.
Chris Peterson’s Huskies return to Tempe this weekend for the first time since 2015, but much has changed since the teams’ last meeting in the valley of the sun — a 27-17 ASU victory.
Washington has won 18 of its last 20, breezed to a Pac-12 championship in 2016 and is on the brink of running the table to its second consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoff this season.
“They’re obviously the team to beat in the league,” ASU Head Coach Todd Graham said during his Monday press conference.
The Huskies recent success could be attributed to many aspects of the program, but none more so than their efficiency — on both sides of the ball. UW ranks top-10 in the nation in offensive and defensive efficiency, a metric that often rewards versatility in a coaches’ game plan.
If play-callers can find new ways to effectively utilize their schemes, they’re likely to run a more efficient attack. Offensively, the Huskies rank amongst teams like Oklahoma State, West Virginia and UCF — all programs with unique attacks on that side of the ball.
Graham noted that the Huskies often have a lot going on even before the ball is snapped.
“You’ve gotta get lined up, you gotta be sound in what you’re doing,” Graham said. “You’re gonna get anywhere from 10 to 15 shifts prior to the cadence starting and you‘re gonna get 15-17 motions.”
It’s difficult to pin down an exact designation for what the Huskies actually run on offense in terms of an overarching system, but it’s not hard to find Washington’s playmakers.
Senior receiver Dante Pettis is electric in the open field, junior tailback Myles Gaskin has established himself as one of the most consistent rushers in the Pac-12 and junior quarterback Jake Browning continues to develop as an elite NFL prospect.
“Really solid decision maker, [he] extends plays a lot more than you think he does,” Graham said on Browning. “There’s a lot of guys that get a lot more attention, but he just wins football games. He’s a championship quarterback.”
If Browning was criticized for one thing over the past couple years, it would be his downfield accuracy. However, given about a year and a half to develop with Peterson as the full-time starter, he’s improved vastly in that aspect of his game. Browning is now averaging 8.5 yards per passing attempt on the season, good enough for top-20 in the country.
In past years with ASU’s secondary units, Browning’s maturation would present a tremendous obstacle for the Sun Devils to overcome. In a year with inexperienced corners and a bevy of injuries, it seems downright impossible.
After junior corner Joey Bryant’s season ended two weeks ago with a knee-injury, it seems that Graham has decided to take an unconventional approach in replacing him. In lieu of starting one of his underclassmen, Graham will likely give redshirt sophomore John Humphrey a serious look with the secondary Saturday night.
Although it’s clear Humphrey will play at some point as a corner against the Huskies, Graham did seem a bit unsure of how significant his role will actually be during the game.
“Obviously he doesn’t have a lot of experience there,” Graham said. We’re trying to teach it to him in a very quick amount of time. I don’t know how much he’ll play there but we’re starting to work him there for him to definitely be able to do it in the future.”
Another defensive challenge Arizona State will be facing is the Huskies offensive line. UW ranks just outside the top-25 in sacks allowed per game (1.2) and the Sun Devils are now in their third week without star linebacker Koron Crump. Pressuring Browning into poor decisions seems to be one of the only ways to have a chance at beating this loaded UW squad, but even Graham’s trademark blitzes will likely struggle this weekend.
As Graham often says, most games in the Pac-12 Conference are likely one or two score games when it comes down to the final quarter.
It’s tough to believe this game will end up like those contests, though, as Washington’s strengths just play right into the Devils’ weaknesses.
Through the first half of the season, the Sun Devils rank 114th in passing yards and 87th in rushing yards allowed per game and 81st in average scoring margin.
The Huskies? Top-6 in all three.