ASU football vs. Washington: 5 keys to a Sun Devil win

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- Coming off arguably the most impressive victory of the Todd Graham era, the Arizona State Sun Devils will look to keep up their winning ways this Saturday in Seattle.

Now 5-1 and ranked No. 14, ASU is in full control of their destiny as they hope to repeat as Pac-12 South champions. They'll be facing a talented, but inconsistent Washington Husky team that is looking to make a statement in the first year of Chris Petersen's regime.

Here are the top five keys to victory and storylines to follow for the Sun Devils this week.

TK’S rust…and leash

Saturday will mark the return of senior quarterback Taylor Kelly after he missed the last three games with a foot injury suffered against Colorado. In his absence, Mike Bercovici that he is a legitimate Pac-12 caliber starter, leading wins over USC and Stanford while throwing for 1,322 yards and 10 touchdowns. Most importantly, he did not turn the ball over in the last two games. 

Kelly returns to the lineup with his Sun Devils at 5-1, ranked 14th in the nation, and in control of their own Pac-12 South destiny. The pressure is on.

Prior to his injury, Kelly was playing solid, if unspectacular, football. While he did lead the team to a 3-0 record and had not thrown an interception, he was not performing at the same level as he did last year when he was the All-Pac-12 second team quarterback. 

When healthy and playing to his potential, Kelly has proven to be a dynamic dual-threat capable of beating any defense. It will be key to get Kelly back on track quickly, so look for many high-percentage passes early to get him into a rhythm. 

But if he struggles and ASU falls behind? It will be interesting to watch how Todd Graham handles the situation. He has said throughout the week that he expects Bercovici to see limited playing time in spots, but with Bercovici as the hot hand, Kelly’s leash could be shorter than his 30-game starter status would be normally.

Win the pass rush, both ways

ASU likely won’t see a more effective pass rushing tandem than they will on Saturday night.

Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha leads all the FBS in sacks with 12.5, and his teammate Danny Shelton is sixth with 7.5. They are pretty much the entirety of the Husky pass rush—with just one other player (Andrew Hudson, 3.0) with more than a single sack on the year—but they are still putting up huge numbers.

UW uses Kikaha at their BUCK position, which is similar to ASU’s Devilbacker. The 6-foot-3, 246-pounder is used from a variety of spots in their front, and can attack from several angles. Shelton, a 339-pound nose tackle, is a monster up front, and actually leads the Huskies in tackles with 57, including 35 solo.

ASU’s offensive line has done a good job in protecting their quarterback this year, with just 11 sacks allowed so far this year. This will be their biggest test, and keeping Kelly and/or Bercovici upright will be essential.

On the flip side, ASU will look to reverse their season-long struggles in the pass rush.

The Sun Devils are averaging just two sacks per game this year, ranking in a tie for 69th among FBS teams. While the defense had an excellent game last week against Stanford, the pass rush managed just a pair of takedowns of quarterback Kevin Hogan, both coming off of blitzes from the secondary.

UW starting quarterback Cyler Miles may miss Saturday’s game as he recovers from a concussion, and early this week, and redshirt freshman Troy Williams has taken first team reps in practice. While a talented dual-threat, Williams is raw and inexperienced. Generating consistent pressure on Williams could likely lead to several game-changing plays in the Sun Devils’ favor.

Attack downfield

The Huskies have a formidable front seven, but they are vulnerable down field.

Washington ranks 112th in the nation in passing yards allowed, averaging over 283 yards per game. Other than outstanding cornerback Marcus Peters, the secondary is very unproven and has struggled throughout the first half of the year.

This bodes well for a Sun Devil passing attack led by Jaelen Strong. With 49 catches for 689 yards and six touchdowns already, the junior is on pace to break multiple ASU receiving records and has become one of the nation’s top wideouts. 

But Washington can ill afford to pay all their attention to Strong. Speedy Cam Smith has emerged as a No. 2 option, stretching defenses for 21 catches for 307 yards. Running back D.J. Foster continues to see plenty of time split out, and is second to Strong with 28 receptions for 372 yards. Ellis Jefferson and Gary Chambers have also made their presence felt this year, and must be acounted for by the Huskies.

Win the turnover battle

Yes, that is a key every game, but with Washington, it takes on an extra priority.

The Huskies enter Saturday’s game ranked second in the nation in turnover margin at +12. Their defense has forced 15 turnovers while they have only turned the ball over three times through seven games. That mark is tied with Oregon for best in the nation.

With Washington’s ability to attack defensively, and Kelly making his first start in over a month, securing the ball will be paramount. ASU may have the edge in talent, but that can be quickly neutralized with a timely turnover or two.

Win with weather

While the Valley continues to bask in mid 90s sunshine, the Sun Devils will be facing quite a different atmosphere in Seattle. Early indications are for rain with temperatures starting in the low 50s and dropping into the 40s thanks to the 7:45 p.m. kickoff time. 

For the most part, ASU has enjoyed favorable, if at times toasty, playing conditions so far this year. Cold and rainy conditions will be a challenge for both teams, and the potential for them to cause a game-changing mistake will be ever present on Saturday.