By Charles Wulf
TEMPE, Ariz. — With kickoff only a few days away let’s take a look at how Arizona State matches up with Texas A&M.
ASU Offense vs A&M Defense:
Arizona State will arrive in Houston with a plethora of attacking options. With senior quarterback Mike Bercovici at the helm, the Devils should shred a Texas A&M defense that gave up an average of 449 yards per game in 2014. In A&M’s final two games of the 2014 regular season, they gave up a combined 719 rushing yards to Missouri and LSU. No, that is not a typo. On first downs, the Aggies gave up an average of 5.9 yards per carry. That is atrocious and should bode well for an ASU offense that will pound the rock with running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage — expect DJ Foster to get a few carries as well.
One area of concern for ASU will be the pass rush. Texas A&M’s sophomore defensive end and preseason All-American Myles Garrett could cause problems for the ASU offensive line. The Devils return three of their five starters from last season, but those three are interior linemen who won’t match up against Garrett.
In the passing game, expect Bercovici to spread the ball around to his many targets. With Foster splitting out wide and transfer wide receiver Devin Lucien a threat to take the top off the defense, the Devils should be able to move the ball through the air against an A&M secondary that gave up 225 yards per game, and only managed five interceptions in 12 games. Don’t be surprised if tight end Kody Kohl gets involved in the passing game. Kohl only had 167 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns in 2014, but he should be more involved in the ASU offense this season as Norvell will use more two-tight end formations.
However, this A&M defense should be much improved under former LSU defensive guru John Chavis. There is no question that A&M has a lot of young talent — their recruiting rankings are polar opposite of their defensive rankings — but can Chavis coach them up and get them ready to take on a high powered and experienced ASU offense?
Prediction: The Devils will move the ball easily against a porous A&M defense with heavy doses of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. Success on the ground will open up the passing game for Mike Bercovici, and expect ASU to get DJ Foster involved early and often.
ASU Defense vs A&M Offense:
This will be a more competitive match up. The Aggies have shown over the past three seasons that what they lack in defense they make up in offensive firepower. Second year quarterback and Phoenix native, Kyle Allen will look to move the ball down the field in a high-tempo spread attack.
Arizona State’s front seven will be the strength of their defensive unit. The Devils have so much talent on the defensive line and at linebacker that they can’t get everyone on the field at the same time. Since 2012, 35.6% of plays against the ASU defense have not resulted in positive yardage and they’ve averaged almost eight tackles-for-loss per game. Graham’s defense also creates turnovers as the Sun Devil defense averaged 2.1 turnovers per game in 2014.
However, the biggest concern for the Devils will be the pass rush. Question marks have surrounded the DEVIL backer position — the edge rusher — throughout Fall camp and Graham has experimented with several players at DEVIL. Heading into Saturday, Antonio Longino is the number one DEVIL backer on the depth chart. If the Devils can get to Kyle Allen, they will drastically improve their chances of victory. While Allen impressed as a freshman, he did not start the entire season. Allen took over starting responsibilities after A&M’s blowout 59-0 loss to Alabama and started the final five games of the season — including the Liberty Bowl. Allen threw an interception in each of his five starts.
If the Devils can’t get to the quarterback, the pressure will be on the ASU secondary to make tackles in space and limit yards after catch. With Graham’s attacking defense, the Devils are prone to giving up chunk plays. Luckily, the Devils have an experienced secondary that bolsters two senior corner backs in Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown. The two combined for eight tackles-for-loss, four picks, and 11 pass break-ups in 2014. Other members of the secondary include Jordan Simone, James Johnson, and Armand Perry, who all saw extensive playing time in 2014.
The Aggies boast a strong receiving corps with five players that caught at least 29 passes in 2014 including leading receiver Josh Reynolds. Sophomore receiver Speedy Noil is another player the Devils should keep an eye on. As a freshman, Noil averaged 118 all-purpose yards per game and is dangerous in the open field. The Aggies also return their leading rusher from last season in Tra Carson.
Prediction: This will be a tough test for the Devils as they go up against an offense that can put up a lot of points. There is no doubt ASU will be formidable against the run with a strong front seven, the question is whether or not they will get to the quarterback on passing downs.
ASU Special Teams vs A&M Special Teams:
Special teams have been ASU’s Achilles heel since Graham arrived in Tempe. Whether it’s giving up big returns or the inability to get anything out of one, the Devils will need to improve in 2015. Enter Shawn Slocum, former special teams coach of the Green Bay Packers. Graham has praised Slocum’s coaching and football knowledge and said having a guy like that on the coaching staff benefits the whole team.
De’Chavon “Gump” Hayes will be the primary kick returner for ASU on Saturday and he will use his speed to create opportunities in the return game. Matt Haack will resume punting duties for the Devils. The Aggies also have experience at punter. Senior Drew Kaser has broken multiple punting records at A&M including the record for punt average in his sophomore season. Returning kicks for the Aggies will be the dangerous Speedy Noil who was named the Preseason All-SEC return specialist.
As far as place kickers go the Devils have an experienced kicker in Zane Gonzalez. In 2014, Gonzalez converted 50 of 52 extra points and made 22 of 27 field goals, including a 49-yarder. The Aggies on the other hand will be without Josh Lambo who is now with the San Diego Chargers. Lambo converted all 59 of his extra point attempts and 13 of 15 field goals in 2014.
Prediction: The Aggies and Devils are pretty even in terms of special teams. However, the advantage goes to the Aggies. The combination of Noil in the return game and Kaser punting could potentially cause serious problems in the field position battle for ASU.
Overall: This game should easily be one of the more entertaining match ups opening weekend. Although it is labeled as a “neutral site” game, Houston is Aggie country. The Devils have been practicing with crowd noise to get acclimated but will have to prove they can operate in a high pressure environment right out of the gate. ASU’s experience on both sides of the ball will lead to a win as they will jump on A&M early and stave off a late charge by the Aggies.
Final Score: ASU wins 45-35