A thrilling Blackout win now has Arizona State back in the Top 25 in both polls as they travel for their first road game of the season at Illinois (2-0).
In their 37-30 overtime win over Missouri, ASU showed the good (their offense), the bad (501 yards allowed) and ugly (12 penalties) of which the team is capable. With a tough road test ahead of them, let's take a look at the most critical keys to a Sun Devil win.
1st - Tackle, Tackle, Tackle
ASU safety Eddie Elder said this week that the coaching staff counted 28 missed tackles in the game against Missouri. The way they played, I'm surprised that number is not much higher.
Outside of Colin Parker, who did a great job of making sound tackles and had several outstanding open field stops, the entire defense was lackadaisical with their tackling fundamentals. Whether it was the ESPN cameras, Blackout atmosphere or just poor discipline, ASU defenders consistently went for a flashy knockout blow instead of a wrap-up tackle, and Missouri ball carriers made them pay. They also often over-pursued and were left vulnerable to cutback runs.
The Sun Devil defense is among the most talented in the nation, but their lack of discipline can be their undoing. Being unable to do the single most basic thing required of a defensive player will cost this team a victory if not rectified immediately.
Perhaps they need to learn from Terry Tate?
2nd - Contain Scheelhaase
Last week, Missouri's quarterback James Franklin, in only his second career start and coming into a hostile environment, had the game of his career. He threw for 319 yards and ran for 84 (he topped 100 if sack yardage is not factored in) and almost single-handedly kept the Tigers in the ballgame.
This week the Devils face an equally dynamic, and likely more polished, player in Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
As a freshman last season, Scheelhaase had an excellent 17-8 touchdown to interception ratio and set a school quarterback record with 868 yards rushing. This year, he is more experienced and all the more dangerous.
Scheelhaase is not surrounded by too many playmakers. Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins is a fine receiver and running back Jason Ford is a powerful runner, but Scheelhaase is far and away the key cog in the Illini attack and the top threat to ASU.
The Sun Devil defensive line was nearly a total non-factor against Missouri. Defensive ends Junior Onyeali and Jamarr Jarrett will need much better performances this week to generate pressure on Scheelhaase and the linebacking corps will need to be diligent in their containment responsibilities when Scheelhaase looks to run.
3rd - Own the Ground
Since the time that Ron Zook took over as Illinois head coach in 2005, the Illini have rushed for more yards than any team in Big Ten. That doesn't figure to change any time soon, especially with the Illini coming off a season in which they ran the ball 619 times and only threw it 289, and that trend has continued through two weeks in 2011, with a 100-43 ratio.
In addition to the huge threat that Scheelhaase poses, the Illini have a good stable of running backs led by Jason Ford. The senior is a load at 235 pounds and already has three touchdowns on the year. He'll be blocked for by a very good offensive line that features two players-tackle Jeff Allen and center Graham Pocic-who earned All-Big Ten recognition a year ago. After ASU's defense was gutted for 182 yards last week, the Sun Devil front seven must step up their game significantly, as Illinois can chew up both yards and time, keeping the dangerous Sun Devil offense off the field.
The importance of controlling the ground translates to the offense as well. Cameron Marshall and Kyle Middlebrooks have combined for 144 yards through two games and Marshall is averaging a paltry 2.9 yards-per-carry. The offensive line was unable to generate any push last week, resulting in nowhere for ASU's backs to run. In a hostile environment, the run game will need to step up to take the crowd out of the game and take time off of the clock.
4th - Don't Look Ahead
While the big win over Missouri was certainly a step in the right direction, there were more than enough examples of the Devils' demons to make any fan wary about whether this team has the mental toughness and discipline necessary to make a run at the conference crown.
There are two primary reasons to fear a letdown in Champaign.
First, ASU may feel a sense of complacency after Friday night's win. For months, the Missouri game was hyped as a make-or-break game for the team, a sentiment that was enhanced by the move to Friday to accommodate a national television audience on ESPN and the debut of the black uniforms. Having won that game presents a danger of a "mission accomplished" feeling when in fact it is "mission just beginning".
Secondly, they must also not get caught looking ahead to next week's big game and conference opener against their old nemeses at USC. The Sun Devils have not beaten the Trojans since 1999, with many of those losses derailing promising seasons. This time, ASU should be the favorite and the game is at home. The Sun Devil coaching staff must stress that this season is a step-by-step journey and not merely a collection of big moments.
Goal - Execute
The simple fact of the matter is that the Sun Devils are the most talented team on both sides of the ball in this game.
That same fact was true in many of the team's losses last season, yet they lost those games not to the opposition but to themselves. Often times only ASU can beat ASU, and they nearly did that last week with 12 penalties and a blocked extra point.
What that boils down to is execution.
If ASU executes their offensive attack well, Brock Osweiler and his bevy of playmakers should have no problem putting 30 or more points up on the board.
The main question is on defense. If they wrap up the Illini ballcarriers and don't give them any extra yards via penalties, the defense should be able to pound Scheelhaase into a sub-par day and leave Champaign at 3-0.