College football season returns tonight in Tempe as the Arizona State Sun Devils face the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks at Sun Devil Stadium. Although this looks like your typical "warm up game," NAU is still a dangerous team with talent. Most noticeably, running back and Chandler native Zach Bauman.
The junior ran for 1,435 yards and 15 touchdowns last season and enters 2012 on the watch list for the Walter Payton Award (FCS Heisman). Bauman is the main weapon on the NAU offense that ASU needs to shut down in order to have a successful night. Here are five keys for a Sun Devil victory.
1. Dominate the running game: ASU must play to its strengths in 2012, and the Sun Devils are deeper at no other position than running back. Cameron Marshall, Marion Grice and D.J. Foster should all see carries tonight and ASU needs to dominate the Lumberjacks on the ground. I would like to see over 100 yards from Marshall and at least three touchdowns on the ground against NAU.
Not only is ASU playing to its strengths in running the ball, they are taking some pressure of quarterbacks Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank. ASU will need to keep the running game going all season, and tonight is a perfect way to get the ball rolling, because if ASU cannot successfully run the ball against NAU, they will have a difficult time running on Pac-12 teams.
2. Find a leader on defense: The 2012 Sun Devil defense will have a brand new look to it, with new players and a new scheme. Vontaze Burfitct, Will Sutton and Colin Parker are gone, meaning it will be important for the ASU defense to find a leader from the get-go. Linebacker Brandon Magee emerged the emotional leader of the team throughout the offseason, but he has not played a game since 2010. Junior Onyeali was named the 2010 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, however he was injured for part of 2011 and only played in eight games.
Look for newcomers Steffon Martin, Chris Young and Jaxon Hood to play big roles for the defense in 2012, and it will not be surprising if one of the newcomers steps up in a leadership role. However, look for an experienced secondary, led by Keelan Johnson and Deveron Carr, to lead the defense in this contest.
3. LIMIT THE PENALTIES: I put this key to the game in all caps because this is a key for the whole season, and it has to start with tonight's game. Arizona State has been terrible when it comes to penalties over the past few seasons under Dennis Erickson, leading the nation in penalties (8.0) and penalty yards per game (79.8) last season.
From the day Todd Graham was hired, he has preached discipline, and tonight is when we find out if the players have bought in. ASU simply cannot have a sloppy game tonight as the schedule will only get tougher.
4. Be fundamentally sound: The Sun Devils have to play fundamentally sound and do the little things against NAU. This could mean picking up all of your blocking assignments, not dropping that pick six or not grabbing the opponent's face mask on a tackle. These are areas were the 2011 Sun Devils failed.
Running backs need to hold onto the football, and quarterbacks need to take care of the ball and not give NAU any short fields. On defense, tackling will be a key tonight as ASU had terrible tackling fundamentals in 2011.
5. Put the game out of reach early: This is THE most important key to tonight's game. ASU needs to have a big lead at halftime and not let NAU hang around. If the Lumberjacks are close in the third quarter, the tension in Sun Devil stadium will begin to rise and the NAU players will begin to think they have a chance at the upset. ASU needs to come focused and prepared for an NAU team that will come ready to win.
For complete coverage of tonight's game, head over to House of Sparky.