ASU football vs. Wisconsin game preview

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By Brad Denny By Brad Denny

No. 20 Wisconsin (2-0, 0-0) vs. Arizona State (1-0, 0-0)

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. PST / 10:30 p.m. EST

Location: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ

Point Spread: ASU -6

TV/Radio: ESPN / 92.3 FM

Weather Forecast: High 90s, clear, light wind

Series History: ASU leads 2-1. Wisconsin won the last meeting between the two in 2010, a 20-19 victory in Madison.

Fun Stat of the Week: This game features the top two defenses in the nation squaring off. Wisconsin is allowing just 162.5 yards-per-game, ASU just 167.0. (However, there is a big asterisk by those based on competition level faced)

ASU on Offense: After last week's "scrimmage" against Sacramento State, this game will be a tremendous measuring stick as to how much more dynamic this ASU offense has become. Wisconsin is still transitioning into their new 3-4 base set, but like ASU, their glowing early numbers came against vastly inferior teams.

All eyes will be on quarterback Taylor Kelly following his nearly flawless opener. There remain critics that believe that the redshirt junior has yet to prove himself against "good" competition, and this Saturday will be the latest test. With his confidence growing each week, look for offensive coordinator Mike Norvell to let Kelly air it out against a suspect Badger secondary. When comfortable and in rhythm, there are few quarterbacks in the nation as efficient as Kelly, and his running ability is another danger that Wisconsin must account for on every play.

Kelly will not be at a shortage of weapons. The backfield remains the strength of the offense, with lead back Marion Grice figuring to see nearly 20 carries along with his usual handful of receptions. Along with D.J. Foster, the Sun Devil backs' speed and explosive ability may be a bit too much for the stout but not overwhelmingly athletic Wisconsin linebacker corps. Inside linebacker Chris Boland, a first-team All-Big Ten performer a year ago, is among the most underrated players in the country, and has great range. 

Downfield is where ASU may have a large advantage. The Sun Devil wide receivers, much maligned in 2012, were bolstered by five newcomers, and performed very well overall against Sacramento State. Top wideout Jaelen Strong could be in for big game, using his 6-foot-4 frame against the smaller and inexperienced Badger cornerbacks, the top three of whom have just five starts between them. The shifty Rick Smith will continue to work underneath, while Foster will once again see many snaps split out wide. The versatile tight end duo of Chris Coyle and De'Marieya Nelson will be countered by talented safety Dezmon Southward, the secondary's top player.

One of the big questions on Saturday will be how effective the Wisconsin pass rush will be. They have yet to register a sack on the year, but have played a relatively basic scheme in their first two games. Like any 3-4 defense, they will look to bring pressure off the edges, and they have a very good weapon in Brendan Kelly. The converted defensive end is a very physical 258-pounder that can move, so ASU tackles Tyler Sulka and Evan Finkenberg must be on their game. Protecting Kelly is priority No. 1 for the line. If they keep Kelly upright, he should have a field day. If he comes under pressure, we may see the kind of mistakes that have led to some of the weaker performances in his career.

Key Match-ups:

  • RB Marion Grice vs. ILB Chris Borland: Borland is one of the nation's top linebackers, and he'll surely be seeing a lot of Grice on Saturday. Grice figures to see a much greater workload than he saw in the opener, and Borland will be Wisconsin's top bet to run him down.
  • WR Jaelen Strong vs. CB Darius Hillary: The hype surrounding Strong was matched by his production on Thursday, and Wisconsin's inexperienced secondary will be hard-pressed to stop him on Saturday. Hillary is a talented corner, but gives up five inches to Strong. 
  • QB Taylor Kelly vs. OLB Brendan Kelly: While Wisconsin has not registered a sack in their first two games, they have some talented pass rushers, with Kelly topping the list. The converted defensive end is dangerous off the edge, and will be gunning for Kelly all night.

ASU on Defense: There will be very few surprises here.

Wisconsin will run the ball, run it again, and run it some more. They will use a talented, athletic, and massive offensive line—averaging nearly 320 pounds across their five starters—to open holes for their stable of talented runners.

A little known fact is that Wisconsin's James White is the current active leader in rushing yards in the FBS. After his pair of 100+-yard efforts this season, he now has 2,823 yards in his career, a fact made all the more remarkable due to his sharing of the load with Montee Ball for a number of years. He's a shifty and speedy  197-pounder that can pick up yards in big chunks, and ASU can ill-afford to let him get into space.

But he's far from alone. 

Melvin Gordon actually leads the team with 284 yards and a staggering 12.9 yards-per-carry average, and is a deadly combination of size (210) and speed. Freshman Corey Clement rounds out the lethal trio by being more of the traditional Badger power back, and he, like White and Gordon, has topped 100 yards in each of the first two games.

ASU's linebackers are all athletic, hard-nosed and rangy, and will be seeing a lot of these Wisconsin backs. The Sun Devils will need to be aggressive in pursuit and be certain to get the Badger runners to the ground when they get a hand on them, as all three backs can rip off chunks of yards after contact.

The major deciding factor in the game will be the battle of the lines. The Sun Devils will need to utilize their explosiveness off the ball and leverage properly to have a chance against the Badger line. Defensive tackle Will Sutton will have an interesting battle in the interior. Center Dallas Lewallen will be making just his third career start, and has struggled this year, but is flanked by a pair of guards with 39 total starts on their resume. 

Badger quarterback Joel Stave continues to grow into the role, and is not asked to do much more than manage games for his team. At 6-foot-5, he fits the bill of a traditional pocket passer, and is not a threat to run. He has struggled with accuracy and some decision making, and ASU needs to get pressure on him when he does drop back to pass.

When Stave does throw, he looks first to senior wideout Jared Abbrederis. The speedster is a big-time deep threat, averaging nearly 17 yards-per-catch over his career. Number two wide receiver Jordan Fredrick has good size at 6-foot-3, 21o pounds, and provides a short-to-intermediate physical target. 

As is custom, Wisconsin heavily uses their tight ends. Senior Jacob Pederson is the top threat as a receiver, but he's no slouch as a blocker, either. Brian Wozniak sees a lot of action as well, as Wisconsin regularly rolls out two tight end power sets.

Key Match-ups:

  • Defensive line vs. Offensive line: This may seem overly simplistic, but there is no greater match-up in this game than this one. Wisconsin brings their annually massive front to Tempe averaging nearly 320 pounds to a man, while ASU's front hovers around 280. If the Badgers are able to assert their will, this will be a long night for the Devils.
  • WILL Chris Young vs Wisconsin's RBs: The Badgers top three running backs are each dynamic threats, and will be coming in constant contact with ASU's top linebacker. Young has great range and closing speed, and he figures to easily get to double digits in tackles on Saturday.
  • CB Osahon Irabor vs. WR Jared Abbrederis: Wisconsin isn't a passing team, but they do like to take shots downfield, and Abbrederis is their top target. The 6-foot-2 junior can burn a defense deep if they cheat up against the run, so ASU's top corner in Irabor will need to stay focused on his assignments.

Special Teams: New ASU kicker Zane Gonzalez had an uneven debut, making two of his four field goals. With a close game expected, the strong-legged freshman will need to be on point on Saturday. The ASU punting job has been won, for now, by Dom Vizzare, whose numbers from the opener were better than his actual kicks, thanks to some favorable bounces.

Robert Nelson will handle the punt return job, while ASU's kickoff return game will likely get their first real test on Saturday. Rick Smith took back the only attempt last week, but Foster may see time there to get more opportunities with the ball in his hands.

Wisconsin's kicking game is equally unstable. Kyle French (one for two on field goals) and Jack Russell (0 for one) are the Badger kickers, with French likely getting the start. However, another shaky effort from him may see Russell get a chance. Drew Meyer is one of the better punters in the Big Ten, able to boom the ball deep, or place them inside the 20 with efficiency.

Wide receiver Kenzel Doe is a dangerous returner, and handles both kickoffs and punts for Wisconsin.

ASU's To-Do List:

  • Limit Wisconsin's run game
  • Force Stave to beat you
  • Win turnover battle
  • Maintain tempo

What it all means: This has all the making of being a physical, knock-down-drag-out affair. Both teams bring fierce defenses and offensive attacks that pride themselves on establishing the run. The Sun Devils will need to play a disciplined and balanced game to have a chance at knocking off the Badgers. If they can limit the damage of the Badger ground game and force the burden onto Stave, they should be able to eek out a close win.

Prediction: ASU wins 27-24