Reality checks come in many different shapes and sizes but there's no doubting that last year's 17-14 loss to Illinois was the first of many reality checks for hopeful fans of the maroon and gold.
Now, coming off a 63-6 romping of the Northern Arizona
sacrificial lambs Lumberjacks, the Fighting Illini roll into town offering that very same potential of bringing this Sun Devils football team right back down to earth.
Here's a breakdown of what fans can expect when ASU seeks revenge on their home turf this Saturday against a familiar Big-10 foe:
Illinois Defense: (The defense comes first because this unit is one of the most underrated in all of college football).
First off, it's important that fans come in realizing this won't be a high-scoring affair as it would be shocking if ASU is even able to put up half of last week's scoring output versus this stout Illinois defense.
As the Sun Devils run game goes, so goes the team but ASU is definitely going to have their hands full with an Illini front seven that held Western Michigan to negative six total rushing yards last week. Illinois returns seven starters from a 2011 defense that was second in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed (123.8) including breakout defensive end Michael Buchanan.
Buchanan, who had 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles last season, should end up in ASU's backfield more times that not, giving quarterback Taylor Kelly his first real test a starter. Kelly will also have to deal with Jonathan Brown, an aggressive junior linebacker whose 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and one interception against WMU earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. On top of that all, Illinois has prototypical space-eater Akeem Spence anchoring their 3-4 defense, allow all others to consistently attack at will.
Illinois does have it's fair share of question marks at safety but the experience that cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green offer essentially makes up for any flaws in this secondary. With a 4-2-5 scheme, Ashante Williams plays the new hybrid safety/linebacker role and the senior shined last week with a 60-yard pick-six.
Don't be surprised if this ferocious group forces three turnovers once again against the Sun Devils. This defense usually gets the best of even the most careful quarterbacks like Kelly.
A lot of this will come down to if Junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase is able to play on his balky left ankle but the Illini will still look to fundamentally pound the ball no matter who is under center.
Illinois' new head coach, Tim Beckman, loves to play the ball control game as evidenced by the Illini owning the advantage in the time of possession department by over 11 minutes last week against WMU. Despite holding on to the ball that long, Illinois run game still looked quite average against Western Michigan and were actually lead by a tight end (Jon Davis' 54 rushing yards lead the team).
Then again, sophomore Donovonn Young (11 carries, two yards) didn't have many holes behind Illinois' collapsing offensive line so it's possible that Beckman elects to go the power route once again by riding Davis.
From a passing game perspective, Beckman still bases his offense from mainly spread formations despite his run-heavy intentions. If Scheelhaase plays, the dual-threat quarterback surely won't be running as much as normal which could help Todd Graham's defense focus purely on the outside pass rush.
Additionally, with A.J. Jenkins gone, the Fighting Illini are without a true go-to-guy at the wide receiver position. Scheelhaase showed solid early chemistry with slot receiver Ryan Lankford last week when they hooked up a 64-yard touchdown strike but other than that the rest of Illinois' passes were mostly safe dump-offs.
Overall, this is an offense very similar to the one ASU owns with an emphasis on the quarterbacks accuracy and decision-making. Then again, Illinois doesn't have nearly the same depth the Sun Devils do at the running back position, which could make their offense even more one-dimensional with a hobbled Scheelhaase or the consistently inconsistent Reilly O'Toole running the show.
X-Factor: Arizona State WR Richard Smith- Yes, I do believe that Taylor Kelly's ability to operate under duress will be the deciding factor if that Devils are able to be victorious or not but that's exactly where Smith comes in. Kelly spread the ball around quite a bit but still showed some notable chemistry with the freshman Smith (five catches, 45 yards and one touchdown). Against this Illinois defense, there's no promises that the offensive line will be able to open up the proper creases so it might not matter who ASU sticks back there to carry the ball. If the run game sputters, Kelly will need someone to steadily rely on when the pocket begins to shrink. Smith might just be that guy.
Final Prediction: Illinois 20, Arizona State 21- Call me crazy but I believe Kelly rises to the challenge and gives the Sun Devils just enough to prevent Illinois from constantly stacking the box. Don't get me wrong, this one won't be pretty on either side and I could see both Michael Eubank and Kelly coughing up the ball at least once each. But Arizona State's 2012 run game seems to be based on wearing out the defense with heavy-hitters like Cameron Marshall and Marion Grice and I see that duo stealing a few big plays late from an Illinois team that's not used to this heat. ASU's defense should also get their fair share of turnovers as well and I wouldn't be surprised if a defender finds the end zone for the second straight week. No matter what happens, it will most likely be tight until the end so the Sun Devil faithful should be treated to some competitive, gritty football.