Editor’s note: This is the last in a six-week series where we’ve taken an early look at each of Arizona’s 12 opponents this season. We finish today with rival Arizona State.
Rich Rodriguez has had it pretty good in his first two seasons at Arizona.
He’s produced back-to-back eight-win seasons, led the Wildcats to a pair of bowl wins, coached a two-time first-team All-American and helped direct a dramatic upset of No. 5 Oregon at Arizona Stadium.
But there’s one thing he hasn’t done — and you know where this is going.
Rodriguez is 0-2 against Arizona State. Not surprisingly, he gets asked about beating the Sun Devils quite often by UA fans.
“People always ask me when we’re going to beat ASU, I’ll tell you when we’re going to beat ASU: when we’re better than them,” Rodriguez said at the Pac-12 media days. “That’s when we’ll beat them. I think the first year that game could have gone either way and we made some mistakes late. And last year we just didn’t play a very good game. I know it’s the most important game on the schedule, but we’re not going to spend all year thinking about it.”
So is this the year Arizona is better than ASU? We’ll find out.
Before we do, here’s a closer look at ASU:
When: Friday, Nov. 28
Where: Arizona Stadium
Last year’s record: 10-4
Projections: Despite the loss of defensive stars Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and a few others, most think the Sun Devils will avoid a step back this season. The Sun Devils were picked to finish third in the Pac-12 South behind UCLA and USC, but ahead of Arizona. The Sporting News thinks the most of ASU. The publication ranked ASU 13th in the country and picked the Sun Devils to finish second in the South. On the flip side, Phil Steele isn’t nearly as sold on Todd Graham’s team. Steele put the Sun Devils fourth in the South behind Arizona and wrote: “I can make a great case for a rebuilding year for Arizona State as their 28 lettermen lost ties for second most in the league and their eight returning starters are by far the fewest.”
3 names to know
Wide receiver Jaelen Strong: The junior is looked at as a possible first-round pick next year after a breakout season last year for the Sun Devils. He had 75 catches for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns. The 6-4, 212-pound receiver has prototypical NFL size and can also outrun defenders. Arizona had trouble stopping Strong last year. He had four catches for 142 yards and a score against the Wildcats.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly: Yeah, he’s still around after a couple of very productive seasons for ASU. The senior threw for 3,635 yards, 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last year. He completed 62 percent of his passes and directed a potent Arizona State offense with ease. Kelly also rushed for 608 yards and nine touchdowns, proving he’s not just a drop-back passer.
Safety Damarious Randall: The Sun Devils return just two defensive starters from last year, and Randall is one of them. He’s a good one to have back. The senior had 71 tackles, including 5½ for a loss, and three interceptions last season. He’ll be counted on to bring experience and leadership to ASU’s defense this season.
3 numbers to know
28.5: The Sun Devils have to find a way to replace the 28.5 sacks from last season that Chris Young, Davon Coleman, Bradford and Sutton combined for.
1,170: ASU has a lot to replace on defense, but having D.J. Foster, who combined for 1,170 all-purpose yards, return in his running back/wide receiver hybrid position will help Graham.
39.7: Arizona State brings back a lot of key members from its offense, which averaged 39.7 points per game last season, good for 10th best in the nation.
Different than last time
As we’ve covered, the Sun Devils have far less on defense than they did last season. Graham relied on Sutton, Bradford and Young to carry the defense in his first two years. He’ll have to find a new crew to lead, which isn’t an impossible task, but won’t be easy. The talent on defense is still there, but there’s a lot of unproven talent. Offensively, ASU shouldn’t look much different. With the dynamic trifecta of Kelly, Strong and Foster, the Sun Devils will move the ball and score points. Can they keep the other team out of the end zone? We’ll find out soon enough.