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Opponent Offense Preview: Arizona State Sun Devils

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Arguably the best QB-WR combo in the conference enters Husky Stadium on Saturday night.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at San Diego State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona State has had an up-and-down start offensively this season, and has been carried by of all things, their defense. With the experience at QB and pieces on offense, there is reason for optimism that things can improve and for them to be one of the conference’s best. Will they by this Saturday? In short, probably not. But the Huskies should underestimate Arizona State at their own risk, given the history between these teams.

The Basics

When Herm Edwards was hired, the master plan was to keep offensive coordinator Billy Napier on the staff. As you’ve all probably heard, Napier realized he was allowed to decide where he wanted to coach so he took the Memphis head job. Up comes Rob Likens, who was on Todd Graham’s staff as WR coach.

Likens spent a lot of time working with and under Sonny Dykes, whom he cites as a major influence. He eventually called plays at Kansas for two seasons, and as you can imagine, they were incredibly bad. Hard to know how much of that is Likens when you’re talking Kansas. But, we saw that he’s a pass-first OC, and through three games at Arizona State that seems to be true as they pass about 58% of the time.

QB Manny Wilkins is almost always out of the shotgun and often times there is a play-action element with RB Eno Benjamin. Defenders have to be disciplined because many play designs call for pulling guards to sell the run, before Wilkins pulls the ball out and passes over the middle to N’Keal Harry.

There’s talent on this offense, but things haven’t quite clicked, especially in the run game. Case in point: on Arizona State’s first offensive play of the season, they were called for delay of game.

Through the air

For some reason, Manny Wilkins doesn’t get much credit, either in the conference or nationally, despite the fact that he’s been pretty good for ASU. He threw for over 3,000 yards and 20 TDs last year, all while completing more than 63% of his passes. He can be a bit careless with the ball at times (17 picks in two seasons) but is a plus athlete with a knack for hurdling defenders. So far this year he’s just shy of 1,000 yards and has seven TDs with just one interception.

When it comes to passing targets, you all know the name: N’Keal Harry. The one-time almost-Dawg has every element needed to be a future top NFL receiver: size, strength, hands, and body control. He’s not quite the fastest or most elusive out there, but his elite size and body control allow him to come down with just about every catch even without great separation. In just three games he has over 300 yards and four TDs.

Running back Eno Benjamin is actually the team’s second leading receiver in terms of catches. He’s shifty and has moves, so the coaches try to get him the ball any way they can. The 5-11 Kyle Williams will get plenty of targets at WR, too. Frank Darby is the explosive threat, and while he hasn’t scored a TD yet this year, averages 19 yards per catch and had five for 127 last week.

Overall this passing attack has average explosiveness at 12.4 yards per completion, but does rank in the top 40 for team passing efficiency. Considering how pass-first they are, Wilkins hasn’t been sacked much, with just five in two games.

On the ground

This is where things get murkier for the Devils. In terms of raw yardage, they rank dead even with Stanford (of all teams), near the bottom of FBS with just 115 yards per game. Eno Benjamin was a blue-chipper and entering his sophomore year, but things haven’t gotten in gear yet. After a big opening game against UTSA, Benjamin had 48 yards on 26 carries in his past two (granted, those have been against Michigan State and San Diego State, two tough defenses). The 5-9 Isaiah Floyd came in from junior college and could get more carries. He is extremely quick and shifty, as you would expect for a RB of his size.

Advanced stats don’t make their run game any prettier, and point to both the offensive line and running backs as culprits. They key indicators: opportunity rate and stuff rate, where ASU is in the bottom six nationally for both categories. Opportunity rate is the percent of carries in which yards that are available, are earned: i.e., if the line gives the running back five yards, does he gain five yards? So far with Arizona State, that hasn’t been the case. Stuff rate is as it sounds—how often do running backs get stopped at or before the line of scrimmage? So far, about 30% of their carries end this way. Since they don’t balance that with explosiveness, they find themselves behind the sticks in third-and-long quite often.

Final Thoughts

One of the major areas that’s been holding the Sun Devils back is third-down conversions, where they sit at a measly 32%. If they can string plays together and reach the red zone, they can be quite dangerous. In ten trips, they’ve scored seven TDs and only settled for FGs twice. Between N’Keal Harry and zone reads with Wilkins/Benjamin, they have weapons to get into the end zone when they get close enough. They have been particularly dangerous in the 21-30 yard line (okay, fine; technically not the red zone), scoring 83% of the time in that field position.

When Arizona State comes into Husky Stadium on Saturday night, they will probably try to establish the pass early as they have done in all their games. N’Keal Harry demands so much attention that this could soften up the run defense to create room for Eno Benjamin on runs and passes out of the backfield. ASU’s line has been solid—not spectacular—in pass protection and the Huskies simply have to get after Wilkins. He’s too athletic and too good a passer to sit in the pocket and hit Harry and Darby. The Huskies were fortunate last week that Tyler Huntley is not a great passer and Utah’s receiving corps is not particularly athletic. That won’t be the case this Saturday. Still, I bet on the Huskies at home to give this offense all it can handle.