Arizona State comes into Saturday’s return match with Georgia leading the country in several categories.
The Sun Devils rank No. 1 in total defense, having allowed 17 points in eight quarters. ASU also is first in the nation in turnover margin, having forced eight (six interceptions and two fumbles) and committed none. (Georgia’s near the other end of the rankings in that category, of course.) And Dennis Erickson’s team leads the nation in kickoff returns.
The caveat about those rankings is that the Sun Devils have only played two games so far and both were against weak competition — Idaho State and Louisiana-Monroe.
Still, the Sun Devils’ defense is expected to be improved from what Georgia faced last year, when A.J. Green had his national coming out party with a career high eight catches for 159 yards. The most notable playmakers on defense are pass rusher Dexter Davis (25.5 sacks in the past two seasons, though none so far this year) and 26-year-old linebacker Mike Nixon, who blocked a punt and had three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) against Idaho State.
On offense, the Sun Devils are something of an unknown quantity. This will be the first career road start for quarterback Danny Sullivan, like Joe Cox a fifth-year senior replacing a longtime starter (Rudy Carpenter). Sullivan, a big kid at 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds, has not thrown an interception in his first two college starts.
But his only previous appearance against a major opponent was last year when he came in for an injured Carpenter in the third quarter against USC. The results weren’t pretty: He completed just four of 17 passes for 28 yards and two interceptions.
So far this season, the ASU offense has been efficient but not that productive. However, considering how shaky Georgia’s pass defense has been and the fact that this season Erickson is introducing a spread offense that at times features four or five wide receivers, ASU probably will be testing the Dogs’ secondary with chief playmakers Kyle Williams and Chris McGaha.
One factor that could work in the Dogs’ favor is that ASU kicker Thomas Weber, the 2007 winner of the Lou Groza Award as college football’s top placekicker, is out with a groin injury. Kicking in his place probably will be freshman walk-on Bobby Wenzig, though linebacker Nixon also may get a shot. Erickson said this week it was uncertain who would kick off. Chances are whoever it is will be instructed to pooch kick to keep the ball away from Georgia’s Brandon Boykin, so the Dogs should start with decent field position.
As for penalties, both teams have been atrocious, with ASU ranking 118th in the nation with 94.5 penalty yards per game while the Dogs are 115th, with 86.3.
Taking all that into account, here are some likely keys to success for Georgia:
Pressure Sullivan. Considering his relative inexperience, it’s unknown how he’ll react to adversity, but it would be a good idea to find out. Up to now, though, Georgia hasn’t had much success in this area.
Eliminate the turnovers. Giving Sullivan a short field will only boost his confidence and continue to stack the odds against the Dogs’ struggling secondary.
Protect Joe Cox. If the offensive line enables Georgia to establish the run and keeps Davis away from Cox, giving him time to find A.J. Green, Michael Moore, Tavares King, Orson Charles and Aron White, ASU will have a hard time keeping up. ASU probably wins this game only if it turns into a low-scoring defensive battle.
I’ve seen a lot of predictions for this game that have Georgia scoring in the low 30s and holding Arizona State to 14 or 17 points. Assuming the Dogs don’t keep turning the ball over, that sounds reasonable.
But if Georgia comes out flat on offense after two straight conference shootouts and continues its generous ways on defense, this easily could turn into the proverbial “trap” game.
What do you think?