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October 28, 2006

Washington preview

Arizona State (4-3 overall; 1-3 in the Pac-10) is in Seattle for the first time since 1999 -- head coach Dirk Koetter's first time as Sun Devil coach -- for a road game against the Washington Huskies (4-4; 2-3). The contest is set to begin at 4 p.m. locally, and it will be televised live on Fox Sports Northwest.

Last week a Homecoming crowd in Tempe saw the Sun Devils avoid becoming the only winless team in conference play with a 38-3 victory over lowly Stanford, a winless team that is certain to go down as one of the worst Pac-10 teams in recent history.

After struggling for much of the season, sophomore quarterback Rudy Carpenter had by far his best game of the season, completing 12 straight passes and 14-of-15 overall for a modest but efficient 160 yards and one touchdown, without throwing an interception.

Carpenter had a confidence-inducing performance against USC the previous week, when Koetter simplified things a bit offensively and the Sun Devils continued that trend against the Cardinal, with great success.

Though it is a style of play that runs counter to his natural predilections, Koetter had admitted in recent weeks that he realizes the strength of this team's offense is its excellent run game featuring Ryan Torain, mixed in with timely high percentage short and intermediate passes, especially targeting tight end Zach Miller.

The Sun Devils are third in the conference, averaging 170.1 yards-per outing and 4.5 yards per running play. Torain is fifth in the Pac-10 with 614 yards on 111 carries (5.5 yards per carry).

Over the course of the last three games, Torain has had more carries than Carpenter has pass attempts and no Sun Devil wide receiver has had more than three catches in any game.

It's those types of statistics that make this season a strange one for Sun Devil fans. At the same time, it is what it is and it's time to embrace and play up to the team's strengths, as Koetter is certainly well aware of.

Against Stanford, when the Sun Devils got into the red zone, he continued to aggressively call run plays, something that had been spotty to that point in the season, even as the team has done a good job of converting red zone opportunities just about all year.

While the Huskies' last-place rank in pass defense in the Pac-10 might present opportunities not available against other teams in the league, especially with Carpenter building off his best game of the season, we don't anticipate any style of play changes Saturday.

And that means the Washington defense can expect a steady pounding of Torain, with some play-action mixed in, typically designed to create some opportunity on the edges of the field and over the middle with Miller and receivers in the slot.

Nate Kimbrough has been playing very well of late and Jamaal Lewis appeared to awaken from a season-long slumber, and both players should get some more opportunities in this game, we believe.

Washington employs a 4-3 defense, with senior defensive end Brandon Ala headlining the group up front. He's tied for the team lead in sacks at three, along with outside linebacker and fellow senior, Scott White.

White has four interceptions on the season and he's one of the team's unquestionable defensive leaders, along with senior safety C.J. Wallace, who leads the team with 70 tackles.

As mentioned, the team has been susceptible against pass this season, especially with starting senior cornerback Dashon Goldson missing a lot of action due to injury. But Goldson is back now and on the other side of the field, junior Roy Lewis has played relatively well all season. He has two interceptions, two passes defended, one sack and is third on the team with 48 tackles.

The Sun Devils should be able to put points on the board in this game so long as they are successful on first downs -- shortening the second and third down distance via the run game and high percentage passes -- and continue recent success with protecting the football, thus extending drives and keeping the defensive off the field and away from poor field possession to start opposition drives.

For the Huskies, there has to be a similar agenda, especially with quarterback Carl Bonnell throwing five interceptions last week in his first start of the season, filling in for an injured Isaiah Stanback.

Despite the turnovers, Washington was able to force overtime against Cal on a 40-yard touchdown pass on the last play of regulation, only to lose in overtime. It was the third straight Pac-10 loss for the team, but Tyrone Willingham's Huskies have played better than expectations, also losing a close game on the road at USC earlier this month.

The Huskies have benefited from tremendous health and continuity with a veteran offensive line that has seen four players take every snap of the season in all eight games, and a fifth that has played every snap of the season outside of the first quarter of the USC game. Only six offensive linemen have played for the team all season.

That offensive line group features two seniors and two juniors, and redshirt freshman left tackle Ben Ossai. They'll have an extra responsibility of protecting Bonnell in this game, as the signal caller is reportedly recovering from a minor shoulder separation suffered in the Cal game, but they didn't give up a single sack against the Bears.

They also may be asked to run block for a tailback returning to action from an ankle sprain, senior Kenny James. If James -- a bigger, physical back -- is unable to go, Washington will have to rely heavily on junior Louis Rankin, who is considered to be more of a speed back than a between-the-tackles runner.

Depending on the availability of James, and the level of success Washington has running the ball early, we may see Bonnell and the Huskies spend much of their time on offense throwing the ball, as they did against Cal when the quarterback had 31 pass attempts.

Senior Sonny Shackelford is the team's top playmaker at wide receiver, with 35 catches for 536 yards and five touchdowns this season. Junior Anthony Russo had three catches for 91 yards and one touchdown last week alone and he's a big-play target, averaging over 17 yards per catch. Sophomore tight end Johnie Kirton is an important red zone target ASU has to be aware of. He's second on the team with three touchdown receptions.

The ASU defense is going to have its hands full in this game in terms of finding a way to access Bonnell in the pocket. As mentioned, Cal didn't have one sack against this offensive line last Saturday. Though the Sun Devils are much improved in this area over last year, against good offensive lines they've been relatively stymied, especially when bringing just their front four.

Against Stanford, ASU was, for the most part, content to sit back in coverage, rush only the front four and allow the Cardinal to make mistakes. That could be the strategy employed again in this game, especially with a varied look to pass coverage that mixes in zone looks with a design on keeping Bonnell guessing. Of course, some timely zone blitzes by guys like Derron Ware and Josh Barrett will likely be part of the program, as well.

Whatever the case, ASU has to keep the Washington rushing attack from getting a confident footing early in the game, and then proceed to get Bonnell out of sync with what he's trying to accomplish offensively.

We know Justin Tryon is an excellent cover corner and this should prove to be a more challenging test for Rudy Burgess on the opposite side of the field. If these guys do a good job preventing big plays and getting third down stops, it'll go a long way toward a successful defensive effort by the Sun Devils.

On special teams, Washington features one of the top punters in the country, Sean Douglas. He's averaging over 45 yards per punt, and a lot of his punts are directional, so he's sacrificing distance for location. With Terry Richardson out of this game as a returner, ASU will possibly turn to true freshman Kyle Williams, who is expected to play for the first time in his career. But with Douglar punting to him, it will be no easy task.


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