With the summer doldrums upon us, now is a good time to start taking a sneak peak at Idaho State's opponents for the upcoming football season. Each week, I'll give you a quick look at a different foe, in order of appearance on the schedule. We start today with the Arizona State Sun Devils, who will host the Bengals on Sept. 5 in Tempe.
Coaching gypsy Dennis Erickson's second season in the Valley of the Sun was a real come-down after he went 10-3 in his debut. The Sun Devils started the season as a likely top 25 team, led by four-year starter Rudy Carpenter returning at quarterback. But they finished the season out of the bowl picture with a 5-7 record that was heavy on victories over lightweights (Northern Arizona, Stanford, Washington, Washington State and UCLA), and no signature wins to be found. They weren't blown out often, losing to then-No. 3 Georgia just 27-10 and to eighth-rated USC 28-0, but they couldn't find a breakthrough win.
ASU returns 14 starters from last year's team, as well as all the specialists. The Sun Devils also have a very manageable early season schedule, with home games against ISU and Louisiana-Monroe sandwiched around a bye. They do have to play at Georgia in game three, but then they get four winnable PAC 10 games in a row: Oregon State and Washington at home, and Washington State and Stanford on the road. With experience on both sides of the football and that schedule, it's conceivable ASU could be 6-1 before Cal and USC come to Tempe Oct. 31 and Nov. 7, respectively.
ASU's brightest star is defensive end Dexter Davis (above), a 6-2, 252-pound senior who has started every game since his redshirt freshman season. He's recorded 27.5 sacks in his career, including 11 last season. (You can read Dexter's "sack lunch" blog here: http://thesundevils.cstv.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/sack-lunch.html). Davis is the biggest name on a veteran defensive front, which also includes Lawrence Guy, who stepped in as a starting defensive tackle as a true freshman last season, and recorded 10 tackles for a loss and two sacks.
Also on defense, linebacker Mike Nixon, a 227-pound senior, tied for the PAC 10 lead with five interceptions and recorded 90 tackles on the season; cornerback Omar Bolden, a junior, broke up seven passes and had two picks; and linebacker Travis Goethel was third on the team with 71 tackles and intercepted two passes.
Offensively, ASU appears to lack true "home run hitters," at least with experience. Wideout Chris McGaha has caught 112 passes in his career, but has scored only five touchdowns in three seasons. WR Kyle Williams appears to be more of a big-play threat, averaging 19 yards a catch last year, but he only caught 19 balls with four touchdowns. Dimitri Nance, their most experienced running back, averaged less than 4 yards a carry in accumulating his 410 yards last season.
But ASU recruits to a PAC 10 level, and that means depth -- and incoming freshmen who could make an immediate impact. On the depth front, Ryan Bass, who was rated as the No. 2 running back recruit in the nation by Rivals last year, averaged 4.6 yards a carry as a true freshman while playing in seven games for ASU last season. The Devils also brought in three freshmen backs who could compete for playing time.
Not to be forgotten is probably ASU's most legitimate All-American candidate -- placekicker Thomas Weber, who has converted on 86 percent of his field goal attempts in his two seasons, including a 24-25 performance as a freshman All-American. Weber is 10 for 14 on field goal attempts of 40 yards or longer, and 2-for-2 over 50.
The Big Question Mark
The burning question in Tempe come August camp will be: Who will replace Carpenter at quarterback? As of the end of spring football, senior Danny Sullivan, 6-4, 242, was listed atop the depth chart. A native of Los Gatos, Calif., the same town that produced Bengal All-American Jared Allen, Sullivan has played in 25 games over three seasons, throwing for 409 yards and three touchdowns. He'll continue to compete with sophomore Samson Szakacsy, a much more athletic QB, and Brock Osweiler, a Montana high school legend, in the fall. Osweiler, a 6-8, 237-pounder from Kalispell, was recruited by both major college football and basketball programs. He graduated from high school in December so he could take part in spring football this year. (To see an interview with him, go here: http://www.abcmontana.com/sports/local/45970877.html)
How the Bengals Match Up
The good news is that while ASU has a lot of experience on both sides of the football, the Sun Devils don't really boast any first-team PAC 10 or All-American caliber players, with the notable exceptions of Davis, the defensive end and Weber, the kicer. The other good news is that ASU will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, which hopefully means the playbook will be somewhat limited when ISU comes to town for the season opener.
The bad news is that ASU, while lacking true headliner talent, is very deep and athletic. ASU lists six different running backs on its spring depth chart -- and that's before the three highly-recruited freshmen hit the campus. They list 12 candidates at wide receiver and four tight ends. Then consider that ISU had one healthy scholarship tailback during spring football. This will definitely be an athletic mismatch.
ISU, who entered spring with a giant hole at the key left tackle slot, will also have to figure out how to keep Davis off the Bengal quarterback. Putting together a running game against that veteran ASU front seven will certainly be a challenge.
And ISU's lack of depth, along with what may be 90-degree or greater heat at the 6 p.m. kickoff will likely take its toll on the Bengal special teams, creating big play opportunities for the Devils.
Still, with ASU being inexperienced at quarterback and in only early-season rhythm offensively, this won't be the worst matchup of the season for Idaho State. That comes next week, when we preview....Oklahoma.
And thanks for being a Bengal -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.