Through two games, Arizona State ranks fourth nationally in total defense and first in the Pac-10 in that category, as well as in scoring defense and passing defense, while also ranking second in rushing defense. But it's still unclear what those numbers really mean, with significantly more potent teams waiting in the wings. Coach Dennis Erickson said the Sun Devils will get their toughest challenge of the season to this point, on Saturday, versus a veteran San Diego State offense.
"Their quarterback (6-foot-6 senior Kevin O'Connell) is the best we've faced," Erickson said. "He's an awfully good player and he has been for a long time. My opinion and talking to people, he's probably going to get drafted very high. He's big and he's got a great arm and can move. They've got some skill and can move the football. They spread you out all over the place with the spread offense type stuff and shotgun. They create problems for you. We've got to get a pass rush on him."
O'Connell completed 28-of-44 passing attempts for 273 yards and one touchdown against one interception in the Aztecs' first game of the season, a 45-17 thumping at the hands of Washington State on the road last Saturday. He has almost 5,000 passing yards in 22 career starts.
Senior tight end Steve Schmidt, 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, had seven catches for 72 yards to lead San Diego State in that game, while 6-foot-4 220 pound senior wide receiver Chaz Schilens had five catches for 70 yards and 6-foot-6 230 pound junior receiver/H-back Darren Mougey had four catches for 52 yards and a touchdown.
Schilens and Mougey, both Arizona natives who played high school football in the Valley, are potential matchup problems for ASU's secondary due to their height and size.
This is perhaps the biggest concern of the game for the Sun Devils, with defensive coordinator Craig Bray admitting Thursday that a lack of focus and consistency in pass coverage has been his biggest disappointment through two games.
Bray has given Jeremy Payton first-string reps at free safety in practice this week ahead of the team's leading returning tackler from last season, Josh Barrett, who has publicly admitted to being unhappy with his performance thus far.
Saturday should also be a better opportunity to gauge how prepared ASU's cornerbacks are for Pac-10 play, which begins the following weekend against Oregon State. Starters Justin Tryon and Chris Baloney have talent, but have not been overwhelmingly consistent and the Sun Devils could be susceptible to giving up some big plays via the air.
San Diego State's rushing offense showed well versus Washington State, with Brandon Bornes carrying the ball seven times for 72 yards (10.3 yards per carry) and one touchdown, and two other backs combining for 39 yards on just six carries. But the Aztecs were forced to rely primarily on the passing game, as they trailed by a wide margin throughout much of the contest.
It is on the defensive side of the ball, where the Aztecs had their troubles, with Washington State quarterback Alex Brink completing 38-of-47 passing attempts for 469 yards and five touchdowns versus one interception.
"We have a fairly young team (on defense) that we can grown with and there's some upside to that but we're going through some growing pains at this point," Aztec coach Chuck Long said in a weekly conference call with reporters.
"The big concern we had going into the game was our secondary holding up," Long said. "We have all new faces in the secondary with the exception of Ray Bass, and he hasn't had a significant amount of starting time. "We played every corner we had. We're very thin at the cornerback position, very inexperience and we just haven't settled down that situation. It will probably be a committee situation as we go through the year. That's the one concern we had. We had a hard time holding up in the passing game, especially against a veteran quarterback and veteran receivers. It was a clinic. They picked us apart.
"This week we have the same challenge because Rudy Carpenter, their quarterback at Arizona State and their receivers are good and we're doing the best we can to stop them this week."
According to Long, the defense has 13 players who received game reps for the first time in their college careers versus Washington State, including four true freshman.
Bass, a 6-foot 195 pound senior safety, led the team with nine tackles (eight solo) last Saturday. Sophomore cornerback [ab]Aaron Moore[/db] had eight tackles and a pass break up, as did 6-foot-1, 230 pound sophomore middle linebacker Luke Laolagi. Strongside linebacker Russell Allen, a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder who led the team in tackles last season, had seven in the Washington State game.
San Diego State did not manage a sack last weekend, and it had just one tackle for loss, collected by senior defensive tackle Ornan Nwansi.
The Aztecs also gave up 185 yards and a touchdown on the ground, including 99 yards by Dwight Tardy on 16 carries and 47 yards by Kevin McCall on just five carries.
Long's team features a 3-4 defensive front (three linemen) designed to take advantage of its strength at linebacker, which is something the Sun Devils got a bit of experience against last weekend, when Colorado switched up its alignment and went with a "30 front" at times.
On special teams, the Aztecs have a standout senior punter -- when healthy -- in Michael Hughes, who was a Ray Guy Award candidate last season before struggling with a foot injury. Hughes appears to be past that, after averaging 42 yards per punt versus the Cougars. The Aztecs also have a senior kicker, Garrett Palmer, who went 1-of-2 last weekend, missing from 53 yards. True freshman Vincent Brown returned six kickoffs for a 24.3 yard average in his first game at the college level.