Here is what scares me about Arizona State: Dexter Davis, Lawrence Guy, James Brooks, Saia Falahola, Vontaze Burfict, Mike Nixon and Travis Goethel.
The first four are defensive linemen. The next three are linebackers. The totality is a defensive front seven that is good enough to beat Arizona.
ASU true freshman Vontaze Burfict has a penchant for big hits and costly penalities/photo by Michael Chow, The Arizona Republic
There. I said it.
“Arizona State’s front seven is as good as any in the Pac-10, if not the country,” Washington State coach Paul Wulff said earlier this season.
A bit of hyperbole from a coach who hasn’t won a conference game this season? Perhaps. But he’s in the right ballpark.
ASU’s defense has deserved a better fate than the team’s 4-7 record. The Sun Devils allow 3.3 yards per rush — the stingiest mark in the conference.
Arizona will be without starting running back Nic Grigsby. UA could very well be without running back Keola Antolin.
Hard to see the Wildcats busting big plays from Greg Nwoko and Nick Booth — two good backs, but neither has the wiggle or the speed as UA’s top two runners.
If UA can’t run, the Sun Devils can drop eight players into coverage against Arizona’s spread offense. It could be like the Cal game all over again. You remember Cal. A 24-16 loss in which Arizona ran for all of 72 yards.
“They’re pretty good up front,” Arizona coach Mike Stoops said of ASU.
“They make it very difficult to run. They’re very fast and physical up front, and their linebackers are very stout, too, with Vontaze in there. They present some big challenges. They’re big. They’re hard to move around and get running space. They do a good job clogging up the run and we’re going to have to find ways to move it.”
Yes, ASU allowed 268 rushing yards to Oregon, but Arizona is not Oregon.
Yes, ASU allowed 237 rushing yards to Stanford, but Arizona is also not Stanford in the running game.
If Saturday’s game in Tempe turns into a defensive grind, which is what ASU wants, the advantage tilts to the home team, which will gain confidence and has nothing left to lose.
Arizona has everything to lose.
The season is OK as it is. The Wildcats are 6-4. According to the point spreads, they should be 6-4. According to the preseason projections, 6-4 is right on target, perhaps even a bit closer to the bulls-eye.
Losing at ASU would turn a once- and still-promising season into a disaster.
It would potentially leave UA out of the bowl picture. With a game at USC remaining, it would shove the Wildcats closer to a season-ending four-game losing streak.
No doubt, Arizona has a better overall team than ASU. Strange things happen in this rivalry game, but being concerned about Arizona State isn’t about strange things having to happen.
It’s about ASU being big and tough up front on defense. It’s about ASU’s defense making a play — or two or three — that turns the game toward the Sun Devils.
It will have to be their defense. Their offense can’t do it. Not much sizzle there. Sophomore Samson Szakacsy will make his second career start at quarterback.
He adds a different dimension because of his running ability, but Arizona won’t be awed by his feet after seeing Oregon’s Jeremiah Masoli last week. Szakacsy threw an interception for a touchdown last week at UCLA. One of his three fumbles was returned for a touchdown.
Arizona’s defense might be able to make a few plays, too.
But if Arizona State’s defensive front seven asserts itself, it could be a long day for the Wildcats no matter what else happens.