Last week, the Arizona State Sun Devils (2-0) got some much-needed revenge against an Illinois team that had rained on their parade last season. This Saturday afternoon, ASU heads to Columbia to square off against a Missouri Tigers squad that will be looking to do much the same following the Devils' exhilarating 37-30 overtime victory over them in Tempe only one year ago.
Luckily for Mizzou (1-1), they have the numbers on their side.
Being the new kids on the block in the SEC, the Tigers inherit one very favorable statistic: the Arizona State football program has never been victorious against a team who resides in the Southeastern Conference (0-5 all-time).
Furthermore, working in Missouri's chances is a juicy fact that was first reported by the Arizona Republic: the Devils haven't won a non-conference, regular season road game since 2006 (a 21-3 victory over the still-Big-12 Colorado Buffaloes). And, to put the pessimistic cherry on top, ASU has only won five of their 21 true road games over the past four years.
By now you're probably wondering something like "why is this team even going to get on the plane in the first place/are the toasted raviolis really worth it" correct? Well then allow me to kindly suggest to chickity-check yourself before your wreck yourself by coming into this one with a hopeless sentiment.
Yes, I realize that a wise man named Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter once declared "men lie, women lie, numbers don't." But what Hova failed to mention is that just because statistics are impartial doesn't mean that they're invariable.
So who says that Todd Graham can't become the first Arizona State head coach to defeat an SEC school...in his first road game...with 70,000+ rabid, retribution-seeking fans watching...engulfed in a sea of gold...
Okay, I'm going to quit psyching myself out now an just get to the preview already:
Point-guarding the Tigers' pick-your-poison spread option attack is the same man that racked up 403 yards of total offense in front of the maroon and gold faithful last year: James Franklin. Franklin will easily be the deadliest weapon the Devils have faced so far this season and he's arguably the second best quarterback they'll play all year outside of USC's Matt Barkley.
The 6'2", 228-pound dual threat quarterback is the perfect instrument for this vertical offense that attempts to overwhelm their opponents with big plays. Despite not turning in his best effort in last week's 41-20 SEC debut loss to Georgia, Franklin still showed flashes of his potential explosiveness with touchdown tosses of 41 and 69 yards.
And Sun Devil fans should expect more of those downfield strikes this Saturday as Franklin has his fair share of toys to play with. Junior wide receivers Marcus Lucas and L'Damian Washington continue the tradition of Jeremy Maclin-like speed demons with the later of the two averaging 28.5 yards on his four receptions this season. The Tigers also have another deep threat nightmare in the form Dorial Green-Beckham, the top overall recruit in the 2012 class. The 6'6", physical freak of nature has yet to make any serious noise yet with only four receptions and 37 yards on the year but he could be primed for a breakout performance against a Sun Devil secondary so thin that they experimented with RB Deantre Lewis at nickel corner this week.
At the running back position, the Tigers compliment Franklin's QB keepers by sprinkling the undersized-yet-dynamic Kendial Lawrence. Lawrence, who weighs in at 5'9", 195-pounds, has nearly unstoppable ability in the open field with his 4.31 speed. Then again, without the true feature back build, Lawrence is liable to disappear at times like he did last week against Georgia, compiling just 41 yards on eight attempts despite gaining 39 yards on just one attempt.
Nonetheless, the Tigers aren't a team that is quick to give up on the run. Even with a clearly ineffective ground assault that averaged 2.6 yards per carry against the Bulldogs, the play-calling was still nearly parallel with 41 passing attempts to 39 carries. The Devils must also keep an eye on T.J. Moe, a senior wide receiver who Franklin consistently targets on safety value routes as an extension of the run game to move the chains.
If the Devils are able take away Moe while also bottling up the run game with space-eaters Will Sutton and Mike Pennel, Franklin could be forced into taking some unnecessary risks. And once you fluster him, the bad decisions have been known to pile up. In last year's Kansas game, Franklin threw interceptions on three consecutive drives and had four second half turnovers against Oklahoma in another 2011 instance.
One thing that's sure not to help Franklin stay calm and collected is the absence of left tackle Elvis Fisher. Fisher's knee injury has forced Missouri to shuffle the position of nearly every starter on their line while also promoting redshirt freshman Brad McNulty from left bench to center. Arizona State would be wise to try to create leverage with inside blitzes in hopes of disrupting the exchange between McNulty and Franklin.
With eight sacks and 21 tackles for loss already this season, the Devils defense, in theory, should be able to manhandle this makeshift offensive line and make Franklin uncomfortable. From there, it's just a matter of containing Franklin's improvising ability.
The Tiger's returned their entire trio of 2011 starting linebackers but luckily for Arizona State, Missouri will be without Zaviar Gooden and his relentless motor due to a hamstring injury. Don't expect this unit to miss a beat though with Will Ebner and Andrew Wilson bringing a constant reliability to the middle of the field.
Operating out of the 4-3, these linebackers don't contribute much in pressuring the quarterback but they're still instinctual playmakers when it comes to bringing down ball-carriers. But then again, their pass-rushing abilities really aren't required with a defensive end like Brad Madison in the fold.
Madison, who made Georgia's developing offensive line look foolish picking up two sacks, should be in Taylor Kelly's grill for the most of this one. The man hangs out in opponents backfields like it's his favorite hobby, which is a huge contributing factor this front seven holding opposing runners to a mere 118 yards on 58 carries (2.03 average).
In the trenches with Madison are the 300-pound nose tackle Matt Hoch and Sheldon Richardson, a former five-star recruit at the defensive tackle position. While these two still aren't the most proven of commodities in the middle of the defense, they're built to smother an opponent's power run game.
With that in mind, Graham may exchange some of those bruising dives from Cameron Marshall and Marion Grice for some sweeps and tosses from D.J. Foster. That, along with some swift runs out from Michael Eubank out of the jumbo package could open things up for Kelly to attack the intermediate parts of the field.
But if they're able to make the Devils one-dimensional by stuffing the run, cornerbacks E.J. Gaines and Kip Edwards could have a field day against a quarterback making his first start away from Sun Devil Stadium. Both are physical defenders who have no qualms about being stuck on an island in one-on-one coverage. And with the ASU wide receivers struggling with bouts of inconsistency so far this season, Kelly might be forced to lock onto tight end Chris Coyle early and often with no promises of separation on the outside.
For that to work, Kelly will be hoping for Kenronte Walker to be assigned to Coyle for most of this one. Walker naturally likes to play closer to the line of scrimmage and while he excels as a reliable run-stuffer, he has shown inconsistencies when asked to drop back. Similarly, free safety Braylon Webb has appeared to be susceptible to the play action in past and often relies on his athleticism to compensate for being out of place.
After completing all five of his attempts for two touchdowns against Illinois, Graham could have the confidence to let Eubank air it out once the defense begins to hone in on the off tackle runs. And if these aggressive safeties creep up too much when they see Eubank running the offense, someone like Coyle or Jamal Miles could be in prime position to make a big play across the middle.
X-Factor: Arizona State RB Cameron Marshall- Even with three touchdowns, there's no denying that Marshall's play has been a relative disappointment through the first two games as he's only averaging 3.1 yards per carry. But if he can turn in a powerful 25-carry performance this week in a hostile environment, all will be forgiven. Marshall didn't have much success against Mizzou last year with 61 yards on 22 attempts and it could be the same tough sledding this go around if the Tigers decide to stack the box. In spite of that all, Marshall has to realize that Kelly needs him now more than ever. Most of his attempts will be for three-yard chunks at a time but if he can bust off a few robust runs, it could be just enough to keep the defense honest.
Final Prediction: Arizona State 28, Missouri 34- I know you're probably wondering where all that "statistics can change" talk from the intro went but I just can't bring myself to pencil in the win for ASU. I expect the Franklin and the Tigers to not hesitant to go for the throat from the coin flip with some the big shots that will give them an early lead. Playing in front of a rambunctious audience for the first time on the road, Graham might just abandon the run too early and if that occurs, I see Kelly hitting some bumps in the road. Still, Arizona State isn't going to go down without a fight so fans should be treated to some trademark "high octane" plays from the Devils. Yet, I still see most of those coming in garbage time to make the score appear more competitive than it actually was. Ultimately, I don't see the Tiger's o-line being that much of any issue with Franklin willing to take whatever is available from the multiple option lanes. If they're able to hold their own, then Missouri should have no problem winning the turnover battle along with the game.