TEMPE - There are mixed-feelings about October daytime kickoffs in Tempe. The last few afternoon games at Sun Devil Stadium, with fans in the stands, were memorable for completely different reasons.
Two games were against Washington State. One included a two-minute drill victory with Jayden Daniels playing freshman hero-ball, while the other ended in a 34-21 loss last season that looks better on the stat-sheet than it did in-person.
Last year, ASU also handled Arizona in the Territorial Cup.
Where will Saturday’s matinee between Arizona State (1-4, 0-2 Pac-12) and No. 21 Washington (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) fit on that scale?
ASU can make a statement heading into the bye with a win this week, but like the last two, it will take an extraordinary effort. Below are three storylines to keep in mind during the game.
What does Donnie Henderson’s unit do against the Pac-12’s top offense?
Washington coach Kalen DeBoer has turned a bottom-of-the-Pac offense into the conference’s top scoring unit through five weeks of play. At the same time, DeBoer shocked Indiana transfer quarterback Michael Penix Jr.’s career back to life.
Penix played in five games last year for Indiana before suffering a shoulder injury. He threw for 4 touchdowns and 7 interceptions on a 53.7-percent completion-rate. In five games this season, he has 16 touchdowns to 3 interceptions. He leads the conference in yards (1,733) and touchdowns, and is second in the conference in rating (166.2, minimum 30 attempts).
USC quarterback Caleb Williams won the eye test. Penix Jr. wins the stat-sheet.
“I think (Penix has) the arm like (Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders),” captain linebacker Kyle Soelle said. “He’s got the ability to throw the ball all over the field.”
Soelle has been a monster all season long in the second level at linebacker. He leads the conference in tackles (61), and he is tied for second in the Pac-12 in interceptions (2).
The problem is, Soelle is largely cleaning up for a tired and depleted defensive line unit that lost starting defensive end Michael Matus for the season during camp. More recently, defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott missed the Utah and USC games after sustaining an injury against Eastern Michigan. While Norman-Lott returned to practice this week, defensive ends Anthonie Cooper and Dylan Hall missed time.
The depth is being tested, and the conference’s third-best rushing attack, and best passing-unit, is coming to town Saturday.
“When you get on that board and we start trying to draw these up, that’s the first thing we’ve got to figure out how we keep him in the pocket,” defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson said. “Number one, at least we know where he’s at. And number two, you still got to make — when you start talking pressure all the time, you still got to think about the run, too. So when you start bringing pressure, you know, there’s always a chance of a run.”
In the defensive backfield, senior cornerback Timarcus Davis picked off Caleb Williams after struggling earlier in the game. Who will make the play in pass-coverage Saturday? Look to Hawai’i transfer safety Khoury Bethley, whose role has only increased game-by-game in the secondary.
Can QB Emory Jones learn from DTR?
Quarterbacks come and go, but some stay awhile and wreak havoc on the conference. That is No. 18 UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Thompson-Robinson, or DTR, diced up the Huskies with his arm and legs last week at the Rose Bowl for 315 yards in the air, 53 rushing yards and 4 total touchdowns. He established the blueprint on how to match Washington stride-for-stride.
In theory, Emory Jones has a similar skillset to DTR. The Washington game would be an appropriate time to unleash it.
In last week’s game against USC, Jones looked extremely poised and in-control, leading ASU to three-straight scoring drives. He accounted for touchdowns on two of them.
“I think (Jones) has finally figured out how to play with this team, that he doesn’t have to make the brilliant plays, just make the plays,” interim head coach Shaun Aguano said. “Get the playmakers the ball in their hands and we’ll be okay. I love the physicality with our offensive line and the interior line on the defense.”
The offense stalled for just 8 points in the second-half, closing the gap from a three-possession game to two. To beat a ranked team like Washington, it will take two halves.
DTR’s weapons also elevated the Bruin offense to its maximum potential last week. Receiver Jake Bobo and running back Zach Charbonnet combined for 322 all-purpose yards. Who could step up in a similar fashion for ASU?
Running back X Valladay is due for another 100-plus yard performance after ripping off three straight to start the season. Daniyel Ngata (5.9 yards per-carry) sure looks like he could do the same with a similar carry-share.
Veteran receiver Bryan Thompson broke out for 86 yards on 5 receptions last week. Can he establish consecutive team-leading performances? Elijah Badger showed out against Oklahoma State and Eastern Michigan, but he fizzled out the last two weeks.
“(Thompson) is, you know, all gas, no brakes, man,” offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas said. “He’s going, which sometimes we have to temper that even in practice, like he’s going full speed all the time. So that’s translating to the field now. You guys are seeing that on the field, which is good. Obviously, that breeds confidence not only from him personally, but within the offense and how we can utilize him. So really, again, proud of him and what he’s been able to do.”
What a win would do for this team
A bowl game is still in the picture for ASU, at least from an outsider’s perspective. A win against Washington would go a long way.
Coming out of the bye next week, ASU has back-to-back winnable contests against Stanford and Colorado, albeit both are on the road. Three straight wins would make later matchups against Oregon State and at Arizona a lot more attainable. Wins in all of these games would mean a bowl-birth.
The 21st-century has been rough for the Huskies at Sun Devil Stadium. Their lone win in Tempe in the last 22 years came all the way back in 2001. The last matchup between these two teams in Tempe ended in a 13-7 upset by 2-3 ASU over the previously undefeated No. 16 Huskies.
The parallels are eerie.