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ASU Football: Oklahoma State Preview, planning for Spencer Sanders, hostile environment and more

Death, taxes and a the road-opener against a ranked opponent

Zac BonDurant

Sun Devil football returned in a big way last Thursday night, throttling NAU by a score of 40-3. However, ASU’s demonstrative victory served as a mere tune-up to their first road trip of the year.

Sparky’s Bus is en route to Stillwater, Okla., as Herm Edwards’ squad gears up for a primetime Saturday night standoff with No. 11 Oklahoma State.

Like ASU, OSU came out on top in their 2022 opener, taking down Central Michigan by an eye-popping score of 58-44.

What looks like a slugfest on paper is anything but with a deeper look.

The Opponent

Following a season of inconsistency on the offensive side of the ball, coach Mike Gundy’s unit moved the ball early and often on Saturday. Senior quarterback Spencer Sanders was the engine of the attack, completing 28 passes on 41 attempts for a career-high 406 yards and six total touchdowns against the Chippewas. Sanders’s dual-threat abilities headline an offense that found success both on the ground and in the air for much of last year, and in their season opener. From Dominic Richardson’s 61 yards on nine carries for a score to Braydon Johnson’s 133 receiving yard day, the Pokes seemingly have a lot of versatility on offense.

The keystone of Oklahoma State football for years now has been their defense, and it remains their biggest strength coming into this season. Don’t be fooled by the scoreboard, the Cowboys’ first-teamers were in their street clothes by the time Central Michigan threw up 22 points in the fourth quarter. While the total yardage was a bit of a concern, including the decline of the offense in the second half, Oklahoma State didn’t need a full 60-minute performance after going up 42-15 at the half. This week though, the foot cannot come off the gas against ASU as it did for Central Michigan.

While Spencer Sanders lit it up last weekend, Arizona State’s defense shined just as bright, limiting NAU to just 120 total yards and seven first downs. And this is with “a ton of mistakes” according to defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson.

Considering Henderson’s noted fear of Sanders and OSU’s up-tempo offense in the postgame press conference, the Sun Devils will have to correct those errors to give themselves a fighting shot on Saturday. Getting veteran defensive back Timarcus Davis healthy and available is a plus, but how great will the subtraction of corner Ed Woods to injury be?

The long-awaited Opening of the Playbook

A common outlook on Arizona State’s defensive unit preseason was a “wait and see” and despite their stellar showing against NAU, this still reigns true with their health concerns and lack of pass rushing.

While the defense remains a question mark, the offense will be up to the bigger challenge against the Big 12’s top defense in 2021. In what will be a recurring theme from this season, quarterback Emory Jones is the only member of the unit that has seen top-tier competition from his days at Florida, and his leadership will mean just as much as his talent in this matchup. Showing no nerves in their desert debuts, Jones racked up an impressive 143 QBR with 200 all-purpose yards while X Valladay dominated the ground game for 116 yards and two end-zone trips.

One noteworthy part of the Sun Devils’ Thursday win was the lack of explosiveness in the passing game with just 152 total yards through the air accrued. Central Michigan’s 424 passing yards against Oklahoma State is what made the game close late and Herm Edwards will need to unlock that aspect of the offense to keep Arizona State in this game.

“We have to be able to run. That’s a little bit of our identity,” Edwards said. “That kind of is our offense a little bit along with some other things that we want to do, but we found a way to win a game, which was important.”

If Arizona State is going to win this game, Emory Jones will need to extend plays and drives at an elite level, thus keeping Spencer Sanders off the field and wearing down Mike Gundy’s defense.

X Valladay will need to be at his best as well, as the current active leader in rushing yards in the FBS gets his first big chance to shine with a national audience. The passing attack has to be threatening, much more than 150 yards worth of receiving last Thursday. Mike Gundy has made a career of feasting on one-dimensional offenses and ASU’s versatility with play-calling will need to be on display early and often.

Putting the pressure on Oklahoma State early will tap into Spencer Sanders’ Achilles heel: turnovers. After going down early to Baylor in the 2021 Big 12 Championship game, the deficit got in the head of Sanders and the offense, which can be seen in his four interceptions in the biggest game of the season.

While this is just a week 2 tilt, Sanders wasn’t tested under a close situation against Central Michigan, and if ASU can jump out to a quick start and make plays in the secondary, the road gets rougher for Sanders historically.

However, with the amount of talent lost on the defensive line over the offseason, Oklahoma State’s blockers match up great with an inexperienced pass-rushing unit. If the pocket is consistently clean for Sanders, Arizona State has no hope to slow him down. While they might even win the possession battle, it won’t matter when Oklahoma State’s elite defense does what it does to provide Sanders and the offense the field position to score. As long as the Cowboys play their game of hard-nosed defense and win the possession battle, it could be a long night for Emory Jones in Stillwater.