Sun Devils open season late against Sac State
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP)
Arizona State spent spring practice, summers workouts and preseason camp getting ready for the start of the season.
When it did finally arrive, the Sun Devils were left on the sidelines, watching games on TV instead of playing.
Thanks to a scheduling quirk, Arizona State had the first week of the college football season off, delaying its second season under coach Todd Graham until Thursday night's home game against Sacramento State.
''I don't think I have ever had a bye week in the first week,'' Graham said. ''I think it has been a positive for us because we have a lot of newcomers and injuries. But our guys are ready to play.''
They better be.
Sacramento State may be an FCS school, but the Hornets are no pushovers. They beat Oregon State in overtime to open the 2011 season and beat Colorado in 2012 on a last-second field goal, joining two-time defending champion North Dakota State as the only FCS teams to knock off FBS schools each of the past two seasons.
After an opening week in which eight FCS teams beat FBS teams, this is a team the Sun Devils need to be ready for, even with a brutal schedule coming up.
''It can make their entire season,'' Graham said. ''I haven't sat there and told our players you better get prepared or you will get beat. I tell them that the key is that they have no excuse. We can't make any excuses. This is a game we should win.''
Here's five things to look for when the Sun Devils host the Hornets:
KELLY'S ENCORE. Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly had a superb 2012 season after winning a close preseason battle to be the Sun Devils' starter. He threw for over 3,000 yards and 29 touchdowns, second-most in school history. He also set a team record by completing 67 percent of his passes while leading Arizona State to three straight victories to close a season for the first time since 1978. Kelly has an innate ability to extend plays with his athleticism, but Graham would like him to cut down on turnovers this season. He should have a big day against the Hornets, but may not play long if the game gets out of hand.
STOPPING SUTTON. Defensive tackle Will Sutton gave Arizona State a huge boost by deciding to return for his senior season instead of leaving for the NFL. A consensus All-American, he was an unstoppable force at times last season, finishing with 13 sacks despite missing two games with a knee injury. He added bulk and strength - he's now 305 pounds - during the offseason and will be a handful for Sac State all night. If the Hornets try to double- or triple-team Sutton, it'll likely leave them vulnerable to players like Carl Bradford and Chris Young.
HORNET DUO. Arizona State's biggest task defensively will be containing quarterback Garrett Safron and running back Ezekiel Graham. Last season, Safron threw for over 2,400 yards and 22 touchdowns while completing 64 percent of his passes. He had a little trouble with his accuracy at times in the opener against San Jose State, completing 23 of 40 passes for 192 yards while throwing two interceptions and no touchdowns. Graham is a threat in the running game or out of the backfield as a receiver. He had over 1,300 total yards last season without any kick or punt returns and had 129 total yards against SJSU last week.
NO LOOKAHEAD. Arizona State's biggest task may be to avoid looking ahead to a schedule that gets a lot tougher in a hurry. After Sac State, the Sun Devils will face No. 21 Wisconsin at home, No. 5 Stanford on the road, No. 25 Southern California at home and No. 14 Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 5. With a gauntlet like that coming up, it would be easy for Arizona State to look past the smaller Hornets, but Graham had had a knack for keeping his team focused on the present.
UPSET CHANCES. Sac State may have had past success against FBS schools and the FCS had a superb opening week, but this will be a tough upset to get for the Hornets. Oregon State was still down when it lost to Sac State and Colorado had trouble beating anyone last season, but Arizona State is a team on the rise. The Sun Devils won eight games in their first season under Graham, including a blowout bowl victory, and have a roster filled with big, athletic players. Arizona State beat Northern Arizona 63-6 in its only game against an FCS opponent last season and Sac State opened this season with a 24-0 loss to San Jose State, which doesn't have near the talent the Sun Devils have.