After staring down the passing attack of Washington State last weekend, Arizona State's run defense will face its most difficult task of the year, stopping talented dual-threat quarterback Jake Locker and the ground attack of the Washington Huskies when the two teams get together at 7:15 p.m. on Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.
The 6-0 (3-0 Pac-10) Sun Devils rank 9th in the country in run defense, limiting opponents to just 80.8 yards per game on the ground. But the 6-foot-3, 225 pound Locker is averaging an unheard of 82.2 rushing yards per game. It's an unheard of number for a Pac-10 quarterback in recent years, and the sophomore is 7th in the Pac-10 in the category.
All together, the Huskies (2-3; 0-2) average a rather modest 160.2 yards on the ground per game, with senior running back Louis Rankin accounting for 63.0 yards per game. More than half their run production is via Locker and he also have five of the team's 10 rushing touchdowns.
The signal caller is, however, far less impressive to this point in the passing game. Locker is 10th among starting Pac-10 quarterbacks in pass efficiency, with a relatively poor 103.2 rating (outside the Top-100 nationally) and his completion rate is just 51.8%. (Rudy Carpenter is completing passes at a rate of 66.7%) Locker has thrown six touchdowns but had seven passes intercepted. The Huskies are the only team in the conference averaging under 200 yards per game via the air.
The key then for ASU, undoubtedly, is containing Locker, and more to the point, making him beat the Sun Devil defense in the pocket with his arm as opposed to on the ground with his feet.
It's no easy task.
In practice this week the Sun Devils took the extremely unusual step of working in cornerback Grant Crunkleton at scout team quarterback on running downs/situations.
"We needed somebody that can run," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said of the decision. "They figure that he gives us a little bit of an idea how fast that kid's (Locker) going to be when he scrambles and stuff. Then when you throw it's [a scout team quarterback]. It's hard to emulate those guys. It's like facing an option team. You can practice against the old wishbone and things like that but until you see it live and the speed of it during a game you don't know."
The problem with stopping someone like Locker, whom Erickson compared to Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young, is that you can't exactly plan for what's going to happen when a play breaks down and he takes off running.
By blitzing a lot, a team actually may make itself more susceptible to Locker's ability to scramble, as there are fewer defenders to chase him down in the open field if he breaks containment.
Washington's receivers, primarily big 6-foot-3 240 pound senior Marcel Reece and 5-foot-11, 185 pound senior Anthony Russo, are pretty decent players, but one would have to assume the team is much less likely to put a big number on the scoreboard if it is forced to score and move the ball primarily through the passing game.
As a result, the best approach for the Sun Devils may be an straight up approach with a lot of mixed in zone looks, which would force Locker to do a good job recognizing varying coverage and make strong, accurate passes into tight spots.
ASU has demonstrated that it's capable at turning errant throws or bad decisions by opposing quarterbacks into interceptions, as evidenced by its pass efficiency defense rating, which is second in the Pac-10. This game may present more turnover opportunities. That approach would also ensure that there is less of a chance Locker will be able to break into open spaces of the field beyond the line of scrimmage.
Much as this is a critical game for ASU's run defense, the Huskies are going to have to prove that they can stop a team from running over them. The Sun Devils are first in the Pac-10 in Time of Possession, and thus far, when it's really mattered, the team has been able to muster together a strong rushing attack, particularly late in games.
Despite missing a game due to injury, running back Ryan Torain is fourth in the Pac-10 in rushing yards per game, at 104.8. He's averaging a very solid 5.2 yards per carry, and that includes one game in which he went up against the No. 1 rushing defense in the nation, Oregon State.
The Huskies have not done a good job stopping the run this season. They rank last in the Pac-10, giving up a glaring 184.7 yards per game on the ground, for an average of 4.7 yards per carry against them.
Washington is going to have to do a good job at the point of attack because Torain and his fellow ASU rushers can be difficult to handle in the open field. If the Huskies' defensive line can minimize rushing lanes and force ASU into more passing third downs, it stands a much better chance of being successful.
Opponents have demonstrated in recent weeks that an attacking blitz can work effectively against the Sun Devils, who have much work to do in this regard. Washington typically doesn't employ this type of approach under coach Tyrone Willingham, and the Huskies are tied for last in the Pac-10 with just 11 sacks. But Washington State had just eight sacks going into last Saturday's game against ASU, but had seven in the contest.
To this point in the season, the Huskies' defensive standouts have been sophomore linebacker E.J. Savannah, senior linebacker Donald Butler, junior free safety Mesphin Forrester, senior cornerback Roy Lewis, and junior defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim.
Savannah leads the team and is second in the conference with 51 total tackles, including four for loss. Butler is the cog in the middle of the defense who will play a vital role in stopping the ASU rushing attack. He has 36 tackles on the season. Forrester is second in the defense with 38 tackles and he has one interception return for a touchdown. Lewis has 37 tackles and a team-high five passes defended. Te'o-Nesheim leads the team with four sacks.
On special teams, Washington kicker Ryan Perkins has made 3-of-5 field goal attempts with the two missed being blocks. Punter Jared Ballman helped keep the Huskies close against USC two weeks ago with five punts inside the 20-yard line. Russo has returned five punts for 45 yards (9.0 yards per return) and Rankin is in the middle of the conference with a 24.0 yard average on kickoff returns.
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