We spoke to Underdog Dynasty New Mexico State football writer Kyle Dubbels who gave us the inside scoop on the Aggies. We then gave him our take on the Sun Devils and Aggies below.
House of Sparky asks Underdog Dynasty
How will New Mexico State contain arguably two of the best running backs in the Pac-12 in Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage?
Dubbels: Honestly, I have no idea. Richard and Ballage are some of the most athletic, versatile backs in the country and can strike from any spot on the field. The only way NMSU will be able to “stop” (if those two can even be stopped) will be to have the entire D swarm to the ball every play. New Mexico State doesn’t have just one athlete who will be able to cover them the whole game.
I expect that they will be covered intermittently by linebackers and corners, possibly SS Jaden Wright, in an attempt to slow them down. The Aggies’ defensive line is more experienced this year but is an uncertain position group, which has me worried going in to this game especially.
Arizona State has finished with the worst passing defense in the nation in back-to-back seasons. Does Tyler Rogers pose a serious threat to the Sun Devil secondary?
Dubbels: Yes. He was injured last year but still managed to throw for 2,603 yards (16 TDs), including 246 yards and two touchdowns against Kentucky, a team that went 7-6. What makes that even more impressive is that Larry Rose III (NMSU’s best player) was out for that game. Currently he sits third on NMSU’s career passing list with 6,348 yards.
However, not only can Rogers throw the ball, he is also very mobile. Last year he ran for 566 yards and four touchdowns, two of those touchdowns and 70 of those yards came in the Kentucky game. He was out for the year in 2015 and is playing this season thanks to a medical redshirt.
Other than Rogers, who are New Mexico State's biggest impact players? Why?
Dubbels: Running Back Larry Rose III. The Aggies wouldn’t be half as big of a threat offensively without Larry Rose III; the offense will show that.
Already regarded by some as the best Aggies player in history, the former Third Team All-American is a player you will come to know quickly. He holds New Mexico State’s single season rushing record (1,651 yards) and will become the career rushing leader this year if he stays healthy, which he wasn’t able to do last year. In addition to his All-American honor, LRIII has received the Sun Belt conference’s Offensive Player of the Year award and was Third Team Sun Belt last year despite his injury. In addition, Larry Rose has been put on numerous preseason award watch lists. However, he is still truly underrated.
Other players to watch out for are senior safety Jaden Wright, who had 81 tackles and five interceptions in 2016, earning 2nd team Sun Belt honors. He is a leader on the defense.
After five years straight of three-win or less seasons, will NMSU finally break through and have more success? Is this the Aggies' year?
Dubbels: That’s the expectation! The Aggies have a bevy of experience on both sides of the ball and for the first time in head coach Doug Martin’s tenure, won’t have to play any freshman. A true testament to how improved this team is is that a lot of the incoming JUCO players are not starting and are in fact 2nd or 3rd on the depth chart.
The schedule didn’t do the Aggies any favor but with senior leadership at QB, RB, and SS, we are looking at a season that could break the nation’s longest bowl drought at 56 years!
Has the buzz from New Mexico State's 35-7 win over the 1999 Sun Devils blown off or do fans still have hope this Thursday?
Fans still remember and are hopeful (at least I am). NMSU’s great showing last year against Kentucky, a team that had a better defense than Arizona State, has the school optimistic, especially with Larry Rose III back. With an improved defense and potent offense, we are expecting there to be some fireworks in the Tempe air Thursday night!
Underdog Dynasty asks House of Sparky
Arizona State has been known as a team that blitzes a lot. Will this still be the case with new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett?
Madden: Phil Bennett is all about disguising his blitzes and coverages - something that we obviously don't get to see much of during practice - so I think it's pretty up in the air in terms of what we see Thursday night. That being said, this team's strength lies in it's front seven, so I'd be surprised if Bennett didn't rush them all night against a team like NMSU.
Destin: To be honest, I think it's head coach Todd Graham's style and even under a new defensive coordinator, the Sun Devils will still blitz a ton. In watching ASU throughout fall camp I did not see too many blitzes or high movement from the defense, but expect the Sun Devils to do so this season.
Who are some players that Aggies fans should know about?
Madden: Although relatively less-known that Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard, sophomore wide receiver N'Keal Harry is an incredible talent on the outside. He has tremendous speed for being 6 foot 4, 220 pounds and some of the best hands in the country. If Manny Wilkins is on, he should have a monstrous night.
Destin: Senior running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard are arguably the best duo of running backs in the Pac-12. Ballage boasted a eight-touchdown performance against Texas Tech last season and Richard rushed for 1,141 yards in 2015. Both have proven they can be great and will cause trouble for the Aggies.
What are some strengths and weaknesses of the Sun Devils?
Madden: As I mentioned before, ASU's front seven is the key strength of this team. They have pretty solid pass rushers across the line and now that junior linebacker Christian Sam is healthy, they should be able to wrap up a bit better in rush defense.
The secondary, however, is brutal. Many are projecting it to get better from the last couple seasons - last in the country both years - but I don't see it happening. The two best corners on the team left and neither current starters have played a game of division one football. Bennett can improve some areas of this defense, but I'm not sure he can create miracles.
Destin: The secondary. Arizona State has had back-to-back seasons as the worst passing defense in the nation. After losing one corner to transfer (Kareem Orr) and another to injury (Armard Perry), the Sun Devils will line up with two rookie junior college transfers at the cornerback position and new starters at safety.
The Sun Devils do pose a huge threat though with their three veteran linebackers. Senior Koron Crump is the leading returner in sacks from last season in the Pac-12, DJ Calhoun boasts the most tackles from last season, 77. Christian Sam was hurt last season, but boasted 96 tackles.
The Sun Devils and Aggies both had some trouble on defense in 2016, with that said, do you expect both offenses to put up big numbers?
Madden: With the playmakers ASU has on offense, they should have no trouble bullying the NMSU line and outclassing them with screens in the flats. That said, NMSU should also be able to convert a bunch of short passes and the occasional over the top. This will be a high scoring game.
Destin: Phil Bennett has changed the culture of the defense at ASU. I predict the Sun Devils to give up no more than two touchdowns.
How confident are Sun Devils fans heading into Thursday's game? Will this team compete for a top spot in the P12-South?
Madden: At least from what I've seen, the majority of readers on our site are fairly confident that this should be a routine victory - I agree. But in terms of the top spot, I'm not sure many think that ASU has the talent level at the moment to dethrone a team like USC.
Destin: Fans are not so confident about this season. Most expect 7-5 at the most, with about an average agreement of 6-6. Personally, I believe the Sun Devils will finish fifth in the Pac-12.