No. 24 Arizona State will host the Nevada Wolf Pack in the second game of the season for both teams on Saturday at 7:00 p.m. on Frank Kush Field at Sun Devil Stadium. This will be the first meeting between the two teams in 59 years, and the Wolf Pack hold a 2-0 all-time series lead, with both wins coming in the 1940s. The game will be televised on Fox Sports Arizona.
Coming off a somewhat unimpressive season opening 35-14 win over NAU in which the score was tied at halftime before the Sun Devils reeled off 21 unanswered points and shut out the Lumberjacks in the second half, Dirk Koetter's program will look to move to 2-0 for the third time in four seasons on Saturday.
The Wolf Pack lost 28-19 at Fresno State last weekend, but played relatively well pulling to within two points after trailing by 15 points early on, only to see the Bulldogs finish off the game's scoring with a sustained 15-play touchdown drive.
After facing extremely unique and often frustrating offensive and defensive schemes in its win over NAU, the Sun Devils will again be taking on an unorthodox style of play, in the form of the Nevada "pistol" offense. It looks a little bit like a hybrid shotgun formation, with the quarterback closer to the line of scrimmage than a typical shotgun set, and there is a running back behind him.
The Pistol offense, installed and so-named by coach Chris Ault, allows for single-back and two-back sets, usually with four wide receivers. It's a spread variation that looks like an offense designed to open up the field and attack downfield but it's really primarily productive in allowing the team to run the ball well in between the tackles.
"Even though Nevada operates out of a short shotgun they're really a running team," Koetter said after a practice this week. "They make you defend their running back and they do a nice job with their downhill running game so the key for us is we gotta stop their running game. We gotta stop those two backs from running the ball downhill. Most of their offense comes off the running game."
Against NAU, the Sun Devils' highly-regarded starting safeties, Zach Catanese and Josh Barrett, combined for just one tackle, but that was primarily due to the fact that by the time they'd come to make a play in the run game, the Lumberjack ball carrier was usually already on the ground.
Saturday's game figures to give them a lot more opportunities, and make them a more vitally important part of the game. Nevada has a talented offensive line that will likely do a better job holding blocks a bit longer, and as a result, the ASU linebackers and safeties should be more challenged in this contest.
The Nevada offense returns seven offensive starters from last season's 9-3 (7-1), Co-Championship WAC squad including quarterback Jeff Rowe, wide receivers Caleb Spencer and Mike McCoy, tight end Anthony Pudewell, and three offensive linemen, Barrett Reznick, Charles Manu[/db], and Dominic Green.
Rowe, a second-team All-WAC selection last season as a junior, has thrown for 6,138 yards in his career, which has moved him into seventh in the Nevada record book and 29th in conference history, while his 39 passing touchdowns put him ninth. The Davey O'Brien Watch list candidate also ranks sixth in career completions (528) and fifth in attempts (890).
Also returning is the team's second-leading rusher, Robert Hubbard, a player who carried the ball 17 times last week for 103 yards, the third straight game in which he rushed for over 100 yards. He had 178 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the team's Hawaii Bowl victory over Central Florida.
On the other side of the ball, Arizona State's offense will again be facing some challenges it normally isn't accustomed to having to prepare for.
"They're a 3-4 defense instead of a 3-3-5 so we primarily play four down defenses with 40 fronts (four down linemen) so to go to a three man line it causes you to alter your blocking schemes so we're definitely preparing for that," Koetter said this week.
How quarterback Rudy Carpenter, whose performance against NAU was his worst in a Sun Devil uniform according to Koetter, and his teammates on the offensive side handle the challenge will be very telling.
They looked more timid and unsure of themselves with the run game versus NAU, particularly in the first half, than at any time in the team's fall camp. Getting Keegan Herring, Ryan Torain, Shaun Dewitty and the offensive line in sync with the run game is essential for this team and preferably the team would like to have it happen before traveling to Colorado.
One mediocre offensive performance to start the season is understandable, but two in a row would be a trend, and the Sun Devils are as aware of that as anyone.
Nevada has seven starters returning on its defense: defensive end Charles Wilson, defensive tackle Matt Hines, linebackers Josh Mauga, Jason DeMars and Ezra Butler, safety Sergio Villasenor, cornerback Joe Garcia. Senior end J.J. Milan also returns after redshirting last season with a broken foot.
The Wolf Pack will put together a varied blitz package to try to keep Carpenter and ASU off-balance and their linebackers are probably the strength of the defense.