Sun Devils face Badgers to kick off brutal stretch
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State’s high-octane offense was in high gear against Sacramento State, churning out yards and points in bunches.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly looked like a better version of last season’s breakout star, winging touchdown passes and extending plays with his legs. The defense was superb, producing the first shutout in Todd Graham’s eight years as a college head coach.
The opening 55-0 victory was, in other words, exactly what the Sun Devils were supposed to do against an FCS opponent.
Now comes the real test.
Starting with Saturday night’s game against No. 20 Wisconsin, Arizona State’s road gets a whole lot tougher.
“It’s a great opportunity and great exposure for our program,” Graham said during his weekly news conference on Monday. “It’s a great opportunity to take our program to the next level and that’s what our focus is. I’m excited about it.”
Coming off an 8-5 season that included a blowout bowl victory, Arizona State entered its second season under Graham with some lofty expectations.
Last week’s opener against Sac State couldn’t have gone much better.
The Sun Devils scored on their first five possessions, raced out to a 42-0 halftime lead and coasted to the finish.
Arizona State escaped without any major injuries and was able to build confidence while getting playing time for players across the depth chart.
Now the gauntlet begins.
After facing Wisconsin, the Sun Devils will play No. 5 Stanford on the road, Southern California at home and No. 21 Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas, on Oct 5.
Graham is a firm believer that for his team to be the best it has to beat the best, and the Sun Devils will be getting a healthy dose of stiff competition over the next month.
“We don’t look at it as a negative,” offensive lineman Jamil Douglas said. “We see it as a challenge.”
The first step in this test-yourself process begins in the desert Saturday night, in front of what’s expected to be a sold-out and blacked-out — all dressed in black — crowd on national TV.
These teams met in 2010 in Madison, a 20-19 win by the Badgers decided by a blocked extra point.
The rematch could be just as tight.
Wisconsin (2-0) started this season in dominating fashion, beating Massachusetts 45-0 and Tennessee Tech 48-0 to open with consecutive shutouts for the first time since 1958. The Badgers have not allowed a touchdown in 11 straight quarters, dating to the 2013 Rose Bowl against Stanford, and lead the nation in total defense at 162.5 yards per game.
Wisconsin’s running back trio of Corey Clement, Melvin Gordon and James White have rushed for over 100 yards in each of this season’s game and have done it three times in their past four games.
Arizona State had one of the nation’s best offenses in its first season running Graham’s go-go-go scheme and kept rolling against Sac State, piling up 523 yards despite sitting most of its starters in the second half.
Kelly established himself as one of the nation’s most versatile quarterbacks and had a superb opener throwing for 300 yards while tying his own school record with five touchdown passes in the first half.
The Sun Devils have one of the best pass-rushing defenses in the country, led by All-American Will Sutton, and squashed the Hornets in the opener after their opening drive. Arizona State allowed 167 yards in that game, putting it second in the nation behind Wisconsin.
The numbers for both are a bit skewed, though, because of the opponents they faced.
Wisconsin’s opening opponent, UMass, is in its second year as an FCS program and went 1-11 a year ago and was missing two of its key offensive players.
An FCS school, Tennessee Tech has never been afraid of playing against bigger programs, facing an FBS school in 17 straight seasons. The Golden Eagles haven’t had much luck, though, going 0-28 all-time against the FBS, including a 63-14 loss to Oregon last season.
The Badgers had no problem overwhelming both teams.
Sac State was one of two FCS programs — with two-time defending champion North Dakota State — to knock off FBS schools each of the previous two seasons, but opened 2013 with a shutout loss to San Jose State. The Hornets were no match for Arizona State’s size and speed, and the game was pretty much over by early in the second quarter.
The level of competition goes up in a hurry this week for both the Badgers and Sun Devils.
“We’re going to face adversity during the season one way or another and it’s how we respond,” Graham said.
The Sun Devils figure to face plenty on Saturday night and over the next few weeks.