Five games in: Arizona vs. Arizona Stateby Anthony Gimino on Oct. 04, 2012, under Arizona football
|Pass Efficiency Defense||123.18||90.25|
|Tackles For Loss||5.6||9.8|
Arizona State fans will be giddy, at least for the next couple of weeks.
The Sun Devils are 4-1, have found a quarterback in sophomore Taylor Kelly, are on the fringes of the Top 25 and should, with relative ease, post another victory next Thursday at Colorado.
That will set up a huge Thursday night “Blackout” game on Oct. 18 — at home vs. Oregon — that already has launched a mascot war.
With league wins over Utah and Cal, ASU should be considered ahead of schedule in its first season under Todd Graham. The Sun Devils would be 5-0 if they could have made a play at the goal line at Missouri.
But, as was the case last year, we really won’t find out what kind of team the Devils have until they hit the tougher part of their schedule in the second half of the season. ASU has yet to face a dynamic quarterback. That will change.
Meanwhile, Arizona’s first year under Rich Rodriguez already is in its critical stretch, with the Cats facing their third No. 18 team in the country this week at Stanford. UA split against its previous No. 18 foes — beating Oklahoma State and losing last week to Oregon State.
What to make of the Wildcats?
On the one hand, the defense is vulnerable and perilously thin (thinner?), making it unlikely Arizona can hold up through this minefield that features Washington, USC and UCLA after Stanford.
On the other hand, Arizona was a play or two away from beating Oregon State and getting to 4-1.
At close to maximum efficiency — that’s always the rub, isn’t it? — the Cats have enough firepower on offense and fight on defense — to hang with most teams.
But, as of now, Arizona State seems to be in better shape to make something of this first-year rebuilding project.
There’s not much separating the programs — after all, the past three meetings have been decided on the final play — but the Sun Devils have two important things Arizona doesn’t right now.
1. Will Sutton.
2. A depth boost from junior college transfers.
Sutton, a junior defensive tackle, is playing like an All-American. He has 10 tackles for loss, including 6.5 sacks. Those would be remarkable season-long numbers for an interior lineman. He has those after five games.
“He needs to go ahead and start getting paid,” Colorado coach Jon Embree said on the Pac-12 coaches teleconference Tuesday. “He’s the best D-lineman I’ve seen, by far, in our conference.”
Sutton, by himself, has more sacks than the entire Arizona defense. The Wildcats have a scant five sacks, with only half a sack coming from a defensive lineman.
As for depth, Graham and Rodriguez each took a different approach with their first recruiting classes.
Graham signed nine junior college transfers. Rodriguez signed only one JC transfer, adding quarterback B.J. Denker months after the February signing day.
Arizona has only two junior college recruits — center Steven Gurrola of Glendale Community College and cornerback Prince Holloway of Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College — committed for the 2013 class, which is nearly full.
Former head coaches Dick Tomey and Mike Stoops routinely added five or six junior college transfers each year (with Tomey having much more success — Chris McAlister, Glenn Parker, Edwin Mulitalo, Frank Middleton, Jeremy McDaniel, Josh Miller — to name several).
Rodriguez won’t be sign as many, even though he admits his team has “quite a few immediate needs” that could be addressed by junior college additions.
“I think it’s personal philosophy from a coaching standpoint,” Rodriguez said of recruiting junior college players.
“We’ll try to get a few junior college guys every year. We didn’t really have time this past recruiting class to do much of anything. This year, there may be a couple. Again, you have to be able to get them into school.
“Everybody’s admission standards are a little bit different. So, for us, there are more challenges that way to get guys. There are a few we’re looking at. We won’t ever take a huge junior college class. We may take one, two or three — four maybe at the most — and then build around the freshmen.”
No doubt, junior college recruits have been a key factor in ASU’s good start.
Marion Grice has 36 rushes for 206 yards and five touchdowns in a deep backfield. Outside linebacker Chris Young has a team-high 36 tackles, including 9.5 for loss. Steffon Martin is a starting linebacker. At least a few others provide depth, although touted nose guard Mike Pennel is now on his second suspension.
Let’s further break down the teams so far:
Three ASU strengths
1. QB Taylor Kelly — Has managed the game, limited mistakes (only two INTs) and his mobility gives the offense versatility.
2. Discipline — Arizona State is among the national leaders with only 4.2 penalties for 31 yards per game. The Devils have picked up an extra 50 yards per game over last season just by eliminating the flags that were so prevalent under Dennis Erickson.
3. An attacking defense — The Devils rank second in the country with 9.8 tackles per loss per game.
Three Arizona strengths
1. QB Matt Scott — The coaches don’t want him to take too many shots in the running game, so he isn’t a read-option wizard like other Rodriguez quarterbacks, but he can be a threat and he’s proven he can handle the passing game. He ranks fifth nationally with an average of 367.2 yards of total offense. We’ll say it again because we like repeating ourselves: Matt Scott gives Arizona a chance.
2. Sophomores — Rodriguez can build around a promising group of sophomores that includes running back Ka’Deem Carey, wide receiver Austin Hill, offensive tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele, safeties Jared Tevis, Tra’Mayne Bondurant and Jourdon Grandon, and cornerback Jonathan McKnight.
3. Tackling — Although the Cats are giving up about the same number of yards per game as last season, you have to factor in tempo. Playing faster on offense, means more possessions for everybody, which means the Wildcats are having to defend more plays. Bottom line: Arizona has improved defensively, in no small part due to better tackling, and is allowing 5.41 yards per play after yielding 6.59 yards per play last season.
So that’s the five-week check-up on the rival programs.
Short-term, give the edge to Arizona State. Long-term … well, fans of each school have to like their chances.