Don't mess with the Devils, buddy. We're number one, we beat anybody! We're the Devils! THE DEVILS!!
Hometown: Tempe, Ariz.
Last season: Went 10-2 in the regular season, technically finishing in a tie with Southern Cal for the Pac-10 title; I say “technically” because they lost by 20 points to the Trojans on Thanksgiving night, at home. That'll learn you to have thirds on the pecan pie! Went to the Holiday Bowl, got blasted 52-34 by Texas, finished the season at #16 in the sportswriters' poll, #13 in the coaches'.
The season thus far: Everything was going real well for the Sun Devils, with consecutive blowouts over Northern Arizona and Stanford, and then soooomebody got a little arrogant and contracted a case of the look-aheads . . . and proceeded to lose to UNLV, who went 2-10 last year, at home in OT. Whoopsy.
Hate index, 1 being Marisa Miller's boobs, 10 being Phil Fulmer's: Seven. I'm not close enough geographically to any of the Pac-10 teams to work up a really good hate-gasm against any of them, and in fact I think the Sun Devils' Disney-derived mascot, Sparky, kicks ass. All that said, though, I seriously can't stand their quarterback, Rudy Carpenter. In every game I've seen him play in, he's just given off this air of being a cocky douchebag, talking shit to opposing players even when they've just leveled him for a 10-yard sack (which, last year, was a pretty frequent occurrence). Basically, he's like a white Reggie Ball with actual passing ability, and there are few quicker ways to earn your way onto Hey Jenny Slater's official On Notice Board than that.
Associated hottie: ASU's reputation for football talent might have sustained a death blow at the hands of the Runnin' Rebels last week, but their reputation for female talent, by God, has remained pretty much flawless, an "Ole Miss with cacti," as it were. Meet Danielle Demski, who attended the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and went on to be an Arizona Cardinals cheerleader, win the title of Miss Arizona USA 2004, and get a job as a correspondent for the World Series of Poker, thereby proving that a journalism degree does not automatically doom one to a thankless job at a newspaper where one's free time is divided between living in fear of downsizing and drinking oneself into an early grave. Congrats, Ms. Demski, you're a survivor.
Celebrity preview: John McCain sings the praises of ASU coach Dennis Erickson -- who can see Mexico from his house! -- here.
What excites me: What was it like for Arizona State to lose to UNLV at home? Well, think back to Georgia's 2002 season, when they played New Mexico State the week before Pat Dye's "man enough" comments and the Alabama game. If Georgia had looked ahead to Alabama and somehow managed to lose to NMSU, that might approximate the shame of ASU losing to the Runnin' Rebs. Only the Aggies went 17-28 in the four years preceding 2002, while UNLV was a pitiful 8-38 from 2004 to '07, so . . . maybe it still wouldn't have been as bad.
The UNLV loss pretty much followed the textbook profile of a look-ahead game -- which, if that's the case, then congrats, Chick-fil-A Corporation, your diabolical scheme worked to perfection -- so I'm not sure exactly how much take-away there is from that for the Dawgs. A couple things jump out at me, though: One, despite facing a schedule that so far has been only D-IA's 84th-toughest, according to Jeff Sagarin, the Sun Devils are still languishing at 91st in the country in rushing yardage, averaging 117.3 yards per game and 3.7 per carry. If, as a Georgia fan who witnessed South Carolina manage just 18 yards on 16 carries last week, you are now inclined to lick your chops, you are not alone.
"I don't wanna play anymore."
Despite returning four of five starters, last year's Sun Devil O-line was an unmitigated disaster, paving the way for only 3.2 yards per rush and hanging Rudy Carpenter out as sack bait on a level unparalleled by anyone other than Notre Dame; the pass-protection issues seem to be getting better, as this year's line has allowed only five sacks in three games, but the run-blocking apparently continues to suffer. Keegan Herring was last year's breakout star in the ASU backfield after taking over midseason for an injured Ryan Torain and still managing to amass 815 rushing yards in only seven starts, but he's been nursing injuries himself in 2008; the tailback Georgia will likely see the most of in Tempe is Dimitri Nance, who totaled 500 yards last year in equally limited action, but who has only rung up 197 yards in three pretty easy games so far.
The other thing that jumps out at me is ASU's third-down conversion rate, which is only 80th in the nation (again, versus a pretty mild schedule). They've converted only 12 of 32 opportunities, including a weak-sauce 2 of 9 against UNLV; Rudy Carpenter whiffed on all four of his third-down pass attempts, including the 3rd-and-3 in overtime that forced the Devils to attempt a game-tying field goal, which was blocked.
As for defense, there aren't a lot of conclusions to be drawn, other than it's safe to say ASU hasn't seen anyone like Knowshon Moreno or Matt Stafford yet. Their pass defense was pretty good last year and should continue to be this year (they currently rank 27th nationally in opponent passing efficiency), but their run defense is merely a so-so 62nd in the country even after facing what could charitably be described as a less-than-formidable stable of running backs thus far. Even after a fairly pedestrian day against South Carolina, Knowshon is still averaging 6.7 yards per carry, so when Dennis Erickson gushes about him, he's not just being polite.
"They can take our lives, but they can never take our UGGGHHHHH."
What worries me: Rudy Carpenter may be a prick, but I'll say this for the kid: If you can throw for 3,202 yards while getting ground into the turf 55 times in the course of one season, you must be pretty good (not to mention tough). It's critical that Georgia get pressure on him early and often, because he's got his top two receivers back, and Dimitri Nance was a fairly decent safety valve catching passes out of the backfield last year.
Whether we're going to be able to apply that pressure is anyone's guess -- we certainly didn't get it against Chris Smelley last week, and that was versus an offensive line nobody thought was any great shakes coming into the game. Again, ASU's 2008 O-line has done a much better job of protecting Carpenter (so far) than last year's, despite only 33 returning starts, 12th-lowest in FBS according to Phil Steele. The other nagging concern from the South Carolina game is our continuing inability to land kickoffs anywhere near the end zone, and just as I wouldn't expect Mark Richt to wake up Saturday morning to find a nice crisp new pass rush underneath his pillow, I don't see the kickoff situation magically getting solved in the next few days; with ASU averaging about 23 yards per KO return, we should probably prepare ourselves to see a lot of Sun Devil drives start at the 35 yard line.
The last major area of concern is intangibles: How will our players react to an unfamiliar opponent in an unfamiliar venue two thousand miles away from home, where Weather.com says the temperature will be nuzzling up against the triple digits on Saturday? Honestly I don't think those factors will be too big an issue -- for one thing, we played five thousand miles away from home when we went to the 2000 Oahu Bowl, and that seemed to work out OK, and at the very least we won't have to deal with the southeastern humidity that makes August/September SEC games such a test of wills. Everybody I've talked to who has any experience with the desert Southwest tells me that the "dry heat" (whatever that is) is deceptive, as it causes you to lose fluids way faster than you think you are, but I'm pretty sure Richt and the medical staff are already accounting for that. It's the Georgia fans in the stands, accustomed as they are to a bourbon IV drip that lasts pretty much from 11 a.m. to kickoff, who are gonna be hurtin' for certain, but that's just our cross to bear, I suppose.
Tempe even has a place called "Diablo Stadium," which carries the devil/hell theme to another level. At first, I thought that was kind of cute; now, as a practicing Catholic, I'm really starting to get worried.
Player who needs to step up: DE Demarcus Dobbs. Or whoever ends up playing at that end, because that guy will be the one positioned to go up against the smallest and least experienced side of ASU's still-untested offensive line. If we can't pressure Carpenter, then he stands to have an even bigger day against us than Chris Smelley did, and I don't think anyone wants to see that.
What I think will happen: I noticed something odd as I was sifting through the parts of Arizona State's postgame summaries where only true obsessive-compulsives dare to tread: In their first two games against Northern Arizona and Stanford, Dennis Erickson's playcalling on first down was biased just slightly toward the pass (a total of 35 passes to 33 rushes). Against UNLV, though, that shifted dramatically, with the Sun Devils rushing on first down more than twice as often as they passed. Well, that worked out great, didn't it? So between the steaming mounds of EPIC FAIL laid on the field at Sun Devil Stadium last Saturday and Georgia's 16th-ranked run defense, currently locking down to the tune of less than 3.3 yards per carry, I would expect Dennis Erickson to pass, pass, and pass some more on Saturday. Which means Willie Martinez needs to be prepared to blitz his balls off.
Where have you gone, Marcus Howard? A nation turns its lo . . . oh, yeah, Indianapolis. That's where you went.
As Paul Westerdawg explains, the fourth-quarter frustration with respect to our pass defense against South Carolina were due mainly to stupid penalties and mental errors as opposed to any deficiencies in scheme -- that and the fact that South Carolina had a 6'5", 242-pound tight end to throw at us. The three tight ends who have seen action for ASU this year are all similar in size to the Gamecocks' Jared Cook, but they've combined for seven catches and 67 yards, so it's safe to say they're not a huge part of the Sun Devil passing attack at the moment. Of their wideouts, 6'4" Michael Jones is going to be tough to defend, but none of the rest of them jump out at me as terrifying physical specimens, so overall I think we match up a lot better with them than with the unusual receiver set Spurrier used against us last Saturday. At the very least, we should be able to defend the pass via something other than the "blizzard of penalty flags" strategy we implemented in the fourth quarter in Columbia; that, in turn, should keep me from roaming from concession stand to concession stand at Sun Devil Stadium, asking them if they have any toaster ovens they wouldn't miss.
The key here is, as always, a fast start by the offense, softening them up early by sending Moreno at them and then opening it up to let Stafford take some shots downfield. It'll be interesting to see what the crowd is like: Everything I've heard about the number of tickets Georgia fans snapped up leads me to believe there will be a lot of red and black in the stands -- maybe even as much as a Georgia Tech home game! -- while the Sun Devil fans may be a wee bit bummed after the loss to UNLV. If that means we can take them completely out of it with one or two early scores, so much the better. Even if we do race out to an early lead, though, there better not be any napping on the field by our defense, as Rudy Carpenter is plenty capable of the kinds of quick strikes that'll put ASU right back in the game (particularly if we're giving them the kind of starting field position we handed the Gamecocks time after time).
Despite the talent on the Sun Devils' offense, we still have a shot at rendering them dangerously one-dimensional if we can hit them as hard as we did South Carolina. I don't honestly think we'll be able to get the same kind of pressure on Carpenter as opposing defenses did last year (certainly not as much as Oregon, USC and Texas, the three teams that beat ASU in '07, did, totaling 19 sacks amongst the three of them), but that won't matter as much if the Sun Devils can't give us a running game to respect.
But all this hinges, to some extent, on Arizona State's motivation for this game -- yeah, I know we'd all like to think that the UNLV loss has so deflated the team that they phone this one in, but remember how many people were saying that about South Carolina after they lost to the Commodores? We can't just expect ASU to pack it in, not when they've got a national-title-winning coach and a major statement-making opportunity as they prepare for the bulk of their league schedule; I don't know if you saw any of the Pac-10 teams play last weekend, but even a team that just got punked by UNLV in overtime still has a right to hope that they can make some noise in this conference.
In the end, though, Arizona State over the last few years reminds me a lot of Georgia under Jim Donnan -- great recruiting, loads of talent, but never quite able to get over the hump, and never quite able to exercise consistent dominance in the big games or against their big rivals. As far as I've been able to ascertain, ASU has only beaten two ranked opponents in the last 10 years, including last year's home victory over an 18th-ranked Cal team whose stunning late-season collapse was already well underway by that point. The redemption-hungry Sun Devils will give Georgia their very best shot, but in the end, the Dawgs win by a touchdown.
And then we all go to the strip to celebrate, and I get drunk -- very, very drunk, in fact, possibly so drunk that I start trying to impress blond ASU co-eds by telling them I'm Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago. Twenty-four hours later I'm either safe and sound in Birmingham, regaling people with stories of my desert adventures, or waking up in a puddle of my own sick in Laughlin, Nevada, searching for enough change to tearfully call my parents from a payphone. Tune in next week to find out which!
Woooo PARTY!!1!11!! I can't feel my legs!
If you're trash-talking: Hate to keep harping on the UNLV loss and the "Bring On Georgia" signs the week before, but . . . man, that was some pharmaceutical-grade hubris on y'all's parts, Devils, and the cosmic punishment for same made even long-dead Greek dramatists stand up and go, "Whoa, man . . . that's fucked up."
Off the football field, Arizona State checked in at #121 with a bullet in U.S. News and World Report's college rankings -- which would put them at ninth in the SEC. I can only assume that this was the genesis for Ned Flanders's observation after Homer Simpson flooded the city of Springfield:
Ned Flanders: The Lord has drowned the wicked and spared the righteous.
Maude Flanders: Isn't that Homer Simpson?
Ned Flanders: Huh, looks like Heaven is easier to get into than Arizona State.
And then we have the case of the Arizona State cheerleader who got kicked off the squad for doing hard-core porn whilst wearing her ASU uniform, but maybe that's just piling on at this point.
Why you should root for Georgia even if you don't care about this game: If you're an SEC fan, you should want Georgia to win to defend the conference's honor from those white-wine-sipping novice-tailgater elitists on the west coast. And even if you're not, you should want Rudy Carpenter to get whacked a few times. Plus Michael Reagan went to ASU, and he sucks.
I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment building wearing nothing but a Georgia flag if: Carpenter gets sacked at least five times in a double-digit Georgia win. The spread's an even touchdown, and I should probably be happy with that, but there's been a lot of grousing (and another one-spot slide in the polls) thanks to Georgia's ugly street brawl with South Carolina, so this is just as much a statement-making opportunity for the Dawgs as it is for the Sun Devils.
On that note, blogging will be light over the next few days since I'm winging my way out to Arizona tomorrow, but I'll do my best to stay in touch and maybe give a report or two from wild, untamed, blazingly hot Tempe. GATA.