Arizona State's Justin Taplin (AP/John Gress)
Contender or Pretender? After a shocking road victory at Oregon last week, the Arizona State Sun Devils who are 6-2 (3-0 in the Pac-10) would like to think that they fit the first description. In this preview, DevilsDigest.com, home of TheInsiders.com ASU website, will attempt to familiarize Husky fans with their opponent this week.
Sun Devil quarterback Andrew Walter continues be the feel good story in Tempe. His latest accomplishment was a Pac-10 record 536 passing yards. The sophomore, who came with lofty accolades as the “next Jake Plummer”, didn’t even begin the season as a starter. However, if Walter continues to turn in record performances, the maroon and gold faithful may be quick to anoint Walter as one of the best signal callers ever to play at ASU. Thus far, Walter has 2003 yards, averaging 250 yards a game. He has thrown for 17 touchdowns, and has been picked off seven times. Ever since he became the starter he has passed for 400 plus yards in three out of his four starts. Walter, third in the conference in pass efficiency, has always been blessed with an NFL-type arm strength, and this year he has vastly improved the mental aspect of his game, as well as his mobility.
ASU’s running game has been somewhat of a disappointment. However, when you take in consideration that 4/5 of ASU’s offense line consists of first year players and other linemen with limited experience, one tends to give the Devils a mulligan on this offensive category. Furthermore, two of ASU’s three leading rushers are redshirt freshman. One of them is Cornell Canidate who has 454 yards, and averages 3.9 yards a carry. Canidate has also scored seven touchdowns on the year. Fellow first year player Hakim Hill, is a dynamo ready to explode each time he catches the ball. He’s been relatively quiet with 219 yards and three touchdowns, but ever so often his plays do spark the imagination. Junior Mike Williams completes this trio, and his numbers are very similar to Hill – 259 yards and three scores. Fullback Mike Karney plays with a punishing style, and is considered one of the best in his position not only in the Pac-10, but nation wide.
With the capable receivers ASU has been blessed with, one may wonder why the running game should be a concern at all. The Sun Devils’ wide receivers helped rank ASU fourth in the Pac-10 in pass offense. This unit is led by last year’s All Pac-10 selection Shaun McDonald. The junior is off to a good start in 2002 catching 55 passes for 941 yards and nine touchdowns. Not only is the Walter-McDonald combination quite potent, but it also allows other ASU wideouts to make their mark. Sophomore Daryl Lightfoot starts along side McDonald, and is the second leading receiver with 242 yards. Lightfoot is true to his name, and is a blazing quick player who possesses some nifty open field moves. Senior Justin Taplin has his best game as a Sun Devil last week, scoring on both of his catches, while massing 80 yards. True freshman Derek Hagan, redshirt freshman Matt Miller, and junior Skyler Fulton each proved in Eugene to be more than just another player in the depth chart, and penalized Oregon’s defense who were double teaming the other wide outs. Tight end Mike Pinkard is a player who has been successfully shaking off a less than average 2001 performance. His blocking abilities are second to none on the team, and his passing skills are quickly catching up. His stats are respectable for a tight end after eight games, 222 yards and three touchdowns. Nevertheless, the tight end position continues to be the forgotten target in ASU’s offense
To say the ASU’s defense was the team’s Achilles heel last season (finishing eighth in the Pac-10) would be an understatement. Nevertheless, this year it is hardly a stretch to say that the Sun Devils’ defense has at times carried the team. ASU is ranked fifth in the conference in total defense, with its “bend but don’t break” style. Fifth is also their ranking against the run (104 yards a game), but it has had its troubles against the pass, as evident in their sixth ranking (253 yards a game). The overall improvement on this side of the ball is largely credited to the Sun Devils’ front four – a unit that came into the season with significant question marks. Defensive end Terrell Suggs, who was All Pac-10 last year, and a pre-season All-American this year, is once again one of the best pass rushers in the conference. The junior leads the Pac-10 in sacks with 13, and in tackles for loss with 17.5. He’s improved physically and mentally upon last year, which saw him weaken as the season wore down. Suggs’ ability to occupy two offensive linemen, has contributed to the emergence of fellow end Jimmy Verdon. The sophomore is sixth on the team with tackles (29), and second in team sacks with three. Plugging up the middle are junior Brian Montesanto, who has successfully moved from his end position, and JC transfer Shane Jones who progression in the last few weeks has earned him his first start this weekend. This group has the capability of disrupting the running game and applying constant pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. Their ability to complete those two objectives will go a long way in determining how well the Devils’ will fair on Saturday against the Huskies.
ASU’s 4-2-5 scheme calls for two linebackers to play each snap. As luck would have it, the Sun Devils feature a trio of talented senior linebackers. Josh Amobi, who was practically a non-factor until midway through his junior year, has been a man possessed since the season started. He leads the conference with four recovered fumbles, and his big hits round out his athleticism. Mason Unck tops the Pac-10 in fumbles forced with four, and as the second leading tackler on the team (64) he has been more than just a complimentary player to Amobi. Solomon Bates had a less than memorable 2001 campaign, but he has showed flashes of brilliance the last few weeks. True freshman Jamar Williams has been a pleasant surprise, who is making the most of his limited play, and is also a vital contributor on special teams.
Another byproduct of the ASU defensive scheme is playing three safeties. As with the linebacker core, this position is blessed with many quality players. Last season, free safety Jason Shivers turned in a sensational freshman campaign where he led the team in tackles, and to no one surprise he’s still the leader so far this season (67). Senior Al Williams at one strong safety is not only one of the more talented defenders (7 tackles for loss), but also a leader on the team. Sophomore Riccardo Stewart returns to the lineup as the third safety. Stewart is a ferocious hitter, who has eight tackles for a loss on the year, and his third on the team with 56 tackles.
Depleted depth and injuries have marred the cornerback group, which is clearly the most troublesome unit on the ASU defense. Despite its overall woes, sophomore R.J. Oliver has emerged as one of the best corners in the Pac-10. Oliver, the fastest Sun Devil on the team, has 13 pass breakups to lead the conference, and is tied for second with four interceptions. Filling the second starter position has been a revolving door, where players were tried by fire attempting to make a positive impact. Currently, JC transfer Brett Hudson who’s been playing at safety for the first few games, is starting opposite Oliver, and doing an admiral job. Hudson had a game ending interception in Eugene last week The true freshmen duo of Josh Golden and Mike Davis Jr. have seen significant playing time, and are expected to play quite a bit on Saturday. So far the performance at the second corner position has been met with mixed reviews, but good pressure upfront can compensate for a rookie corner left on an “island”…
Special Teams coach Tom Osborne is considered one of the best in his craft nationwide. Thus, to no one’s surprise, this ASU group has shown remarkable improvement ever since his arrival last year. Junior punter Tim Parker leads the conference with 42.4 yards a punt, and proved that he’s a proficient passer - executing to perfection a fake punt against Oregon. Kicker Mike Barth is considered one the better kickers in the Pac-10, but his performance up until the Oregon game has tarnished his reputation quite a bit. Nonetheless, he bounced back in a big way at Oregon scoring on all of his three attempts to secure the 45-42 ASU win. Hakim Hill and his 23 yards per kick return are a big reason why the Devils are one of the leaders in this category in the Pac-10. Hill has been also returning punts in the last few weeks, trying to bolster a unit that ranks eight in the conference. Daryl Lightfoot will back up Hill on punt returns, and join him on kick off returns. Cornell Canidate and Mike Williams could also figure in as additional kickoff returners. The Sun Devils are among the conference leaders in kickoff and punt coverage. Overall, this special teams unit has been for the most part very solid for Dirk Koetter’s team, and has the ability to be a difference maker in a tight game.
It would be easy to presume that this ASU team may not be ready for the spotlight, and thus are primed to fall after a big win. After demolishing Stanford 65-24, the Sun Devils played horrendous in a 38-35 loss to North Carolina. Back then some blamed the loss on overconfidence. While all indications coming out o Tempe that this squad is hungry, focused, and anything but cocky – the proof will be in the outcome of the Washington game. These two teams have always treated their fans to nail biting games full of twists and turns. This Saturday in Tempe shouldn’t be any different.