Arizona State’s 2017 season motto, “Sun Devil Tough,” couldn’t possibly be more fitting for Saturday night’s contest.
In a game the Sun Devils will honor legendary ASU coach Frank Kush, Arizona State’s (1-0) opponent, San Diego State (1-0), triggers physicality from the Sun Devils with its run-crazy offense.
Head coach Todd Graham said his last conversation with Kush embodied a subject they’d conversed many times — toughness. Kush died at the age of 88 in June. In July, Graham spoke to the media for the first time after his passing, saying that Kush mentioned “being a Sun Devil is about being a tough, you know that.”
On Saturday night, against an Aztecs team who carried the ball 52 for 276 yards in week one against UC Davis, the Sun Devils must deliver toughness.
“It’s fitting that this is going to be a physical game,” said ASU head coach Todd Graham. “We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us and I think Frank would like this contest... We surely want to play it in a way that he would be happy and we’re going to do our best to do that.”
Of those 276 yards, San Diego State senior running back Rashaad Penny ran for 197 yards and two touchdowns, as the Aztecs scored 38 points. The Sun Devils ran for just 79 yards against New Mexico State, finding ways to score otherwise and ending the night with 37 points.
But what ultimately did win the game for the Sun Devils was ASU’s ability to protect the football. NMSU earned more yards passing and running than the Sun Devils, but handed ASU two interceptions.
“I think the single most important thing in this game is turnover ratio. Then obviously the physically of it,” Graham said. “Your run game defense and run game offense is definitely a correlation to points being scored.”
Defensively, it will be a tough task for ASU. San Diego State ran for 3,680 yards last season — good for sixth in the nation. But that doesn’t mean they can’t pass as well. Equipped with junior quarterback Christian Chapman, who posted a 20:6 touchdown to interception ratio last season, the Aztecs may catch the Sun Devils off guard in the air.
“Once you load up, they all of a sudden throw it over the top,” said defensive coordinator Phil Bennett. “You’ve gotta be very discliplined. You’ve gotta be very physical and you’ve gotta be a little bit unpredictable in giving them the looks yourself.”
Arizona State’s secondary was tested in the Sun Devils’ 37-31 win over NMSU facing a veteran quarterback in Tyler Rogers. This week, it’s the front seven who will be most watched.
With two sacks a piece, senior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood and senior linebacker Koron Crump are tied with 29 other players for the second-most sacks in the nation.
Offensively, the Sun Devils will face an Aztecs defense that lines up in a 3-3-5 formation. With three defensive linemen and five defensive backs, it give the SDSU an advantage on passing defense.
Wilkins passed for 300 yards with no interceptions against New Mexico State, a feat he only accomplished once last season. But an Aztecs defense who owned a second-most in the nation 23 interceptions last season, is poised to cause trouble.
“They’re unique. They’re different than any defense we’ll play the entire year,” said ASU offensive coordinator Billy Napier.
Napier then complimented the Aztecs even further adding that the Aztecs’ 49 interceptions over the past two seasons are the most of any team in the country.
“More than anything, it’s just the structure they have in place. And I think it fits who they are and what they do.”