Wisconsin offers ASU latest chance for big-time win
SEP 13, 2013 12:12p ET
In recent memory, there was Oregon in 2007. Georgia in 2008. Wisconsin in 2010. Oregon again last season.
Saturday's game against No. 20 Wisconsin gives ASU another chance to prove it can win the big game, and this year, the Sun Devils truly believe they can do it.
"In past years, we haven't had the best luck with these kinds of teams," tight end Chris Coyle said. "The difference between those teams and this year I think is we're much more accountable. We're more disciplined, we're more focused and we're holding each other accountable."
ASU won a few important games last season, Todd Graham's first as coach. There was the program's first win in Berkeley since 1997. There was a thrilling Territorial Cup win in Tucson. And ASU capped the season by beating Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl for its first bowl win since 2005.
None of those games, however, provided the resume boost a win over Wisconsin on Saturday would. The Badgers are coming off three straight Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl appearances. They are ranked higher than any team ASU has beaten since 2007.
A win would also provide a nice start to the stretch of schedule that next includes reigning Pac-12 champion Stanford, USC and 2012 national championship runner-up Notre Dame.
"We think that is a great opportunity for our program and great exposure for our program," Graham said. "We can take our program to the next level."
ASU just has to avoid the letdown suffered in recent spotlight losses. For this year's team, the Wisconsin loss in 2010 and Oregon loss last year stand out, and players seem to have a clear understanding of what happened.
"In the 2010 game it boiled down to us not being disciplined in the back end, the secondary," senior safety Alden Darby said. "Last year against Oregon, it boiled down to us not having any confidence when Will Sutton went down (injured).
"This year, we have great discipline and the confidence that we can still play well if someone goes down."
The tone this week, however, was not one of avoiding a loss but rather one of winning a game that could change the momentum of the season and the program. The way to do that: stop the run.
ASU's inability to effectively stop strong ground games has been well documented by now. So too are its efforts to beef up its run-stopping ability through scheme and greater size and depth in the front seven. On Saturday night, against one of college football's best power running teams, ASU's progress will be on display.
"This is as good of a run football team and as good of a big-play football team as we're going to play," Graham said. "We'll find out exactly where we're at when it comes to our run defense."
Wisconsin senior James White, sophomore Melvin Gordon and freshman Corey Clement have thus far been a three-headed monster in the backfield for the Badgers. All three are averaging 125.0 yards per game or greater. But ASU's vaunted defensive line welcomes the challenge.
"People say we can't stop the run," defensive tackle Will Sutton said. "That's just music to our ears. We've just got to go out there and prove them wrong."
Wisconsin's play-action passing, handled capably by sophomore quarterback Joel Stave, should also prove a test of ASU's defensive discipline, as overagression and misreads could have the Badgers marching up and down the field.
As much as Wisconsin will test just how good this ASU team can be, so too will ASU test a Wisconsin team under new coach Gary Andersen that has thus far faced an FCS team and an FBS team, UMass, that won a single game last season and last week lost to an FCS opponent.
The seemingly powerful Wisconsin offense that has averaged 46.5 points and 602 yards per game will find out just how good it really is against ASU's celebrated defense, which returned eight starters.
"The way Arizona State plays on defense, they play quick, they play fast, aggressive," Stave said. "They're good players. It's going to be a tough test for us, and we have to prepare well and we have to play well."
While much will be revealed for both teams, perhaps most intriguing will be seeing if ASU can secure the elusive big-time win the way it hasn't almost every time a game has been billed as the Sun Devils' chance to get to the next level.
Then again, an ASU would be celebrated only briefly, as Stanford looms as the next big opportunity just seven days later. The outcome of what is perhaps the toughest four-game stretch in school history will be more telling of the program's momentum than the individual games within it, but winning Saturday's showdown would certainly be a good start.
"We've got 14 steps (this season), and we've accomplished one," Graham said. "So how significant is this one? It's huge."