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Q&A With The House Of Sparky

As Taylor Kelly goes, so goes the Sun Devils. But what's the full story on Arizona St.?
As Taylor Kelly goes, so goes the Sun Devils. But what's the full story on Arizona St.?
Photo by Andy Wooldridge

Oregon St. is headed to Tempe this week, to take on an Arizona St. team that's been lights out at Sun Devil Stadium (which might be in their favor, given its a night game), but has had a little more trouble on the road, at least when not beating up on our neighbors the Cougs on Halloween night.

Their latest outing was a come from 2 touchdowns down 20-19 win in Salt Lake City. Having a tough time beating the Utes in Rice-Eccles is certainly a concept Oregon St. fans can identify with.

But what is the scouting report on Arizona St.?

We got with Cody Ulm, one of the writers for the House of Sparky, to get the in-depth rundown on Taylor Kelly, Marion Grice, and everything Beaver Nation needs to know to get ready for Saturday night.

Thanks, Cody, for taking the time to shed some light on things!

BTD: The apparent $64K question has to be why Arizona St. has struggled to duplicate their dominant performances in Tempe on the road, with the exception of at Washington St.? And can an opponent, like Oregon St., duplicate whatever it is that so often disrupts the Sun Devil offense on the road at Sun Devil Stadium?

Cody: It's hard to say how worse Arizona State actually is away from home upon deeper examination of the teams they've played outside of Tempe. If there's one common denominator between Stanford, Notre Dame and Utah, its that all three teams win football games by playing physical. And if you can overpower the Sun Devils, you stand a good chance of beating them.

Much in the same way Utah beat Stanford, the Utes controlled the line of scrimmage for about 55 minutes Saturday. Utah's big boys up front made Arizona State's offensive line do its best wet paper towel impression. Non-existent running lanes resulted in Marion Grice lacking his usual conviction. A negligible running game resulted in Taylor Kelly's happy feet making an appearance. And Kelly being taken out of his comfort zone resulted in the term "sustained drive" seeming like a foreign concept.

The Sun Devils are a rhythm team. Once they get rolling, they're nearly unstoppable. But the double edged sword is that when ASU's no-huddle offense gets out of wack, a potent opposing offense can rack up a lot of points in a little time (i.e. Arizona State's visit to Stanford). And being on the road just compounds that sense of offensive distress. Regardless of where this game is played, the Beavers offense is certainly powerful enough to make that nightmare happen again if Arizona State can't match their output.

Yet Oregon State's defense isn't the beefiest bunch so the Beavers should have a hard time replicating the same success Utah found last weekend. Even so, Oregon State could still do a lot of good by limiting the rushing opportunities for Kelly. Arizona State's offense is most potent when Kelly forces the defense to second guess itself with his feet. So a huge X-Factor will be Oregon State's ability to silence the read-option early, much like the Utes did.

BTD:. On a probably related note, we've noted that Taylor Kelly has had 3 huge games running, and 3 pretty good ones, but also 3 games where he struggled on the ground, probably not coincidentally in the 2 Arizona St. losses and last week's close call at Utah. What did Stanford, Notre Dame, and Utah do differently that contained Kelly's running?

Cody: As we just touched in, it comes back to manhandling Arizona State's offensive line. Neither Kelly nor Grice stood a chance Saturday with what they were given to work with. And with Arizona State's wide receivers failing to create separation, Utah's defense slowly creeped closer to the line of scrimmage. Truly, it was magnificently coached game by Kyle Wittingham and his staff. At times, it seemed like he was intercepting offensive calls or something

Seriously...I can't stress this enough. If I was Mike Riley, I would have watched that film about one bajillion times by Saturday morning.

An overwhelmed offensive line was the same theme against Stanford and Notre Dame. But as the Washington game showed, the gentlemen up front do have the potential to hold it down against a solid defense. They just aren't built to fight a power front seven. If the Beavers aren't able to control the line, they could be in for a long day. Kelly is deceptively shifty in the open field and he's one of the best in college football at picking his spots.

BTD:. Marion Grice, on the other hand, has had no such problems, putting up good numbers in both rushing and receiving every game. What has made him so successful against such a variety of opponents, and under varied circumstances?

Cody: While the touchdowns are there, Grice hasn't been as effective on a per play basis in 2013. Much of that has to do with the offensive line's struggles but Grice has still seems to be trying to bump too many runs to the edges. When he gets rolling though, you'd be wise to get out of his way. Grice's vision is simply unparalleled. If you don't believe me, I invite you to rewatch the fourth quarter of that Utah game.

And so much of what makes Grice great comes from that attribute. He's an instinctive cutter who knows where the defenders are around him at all times. That not only allows him to be a killing machine in the open field, it also allows him to run intelligently. It's hard to describe but you almost never see Grice take a brutal hit. That awareness heightens his anticipation and body control so most of damage inflicted upon him are glancing blows.

Oh yeah, his hands are pretty solid too.

BTD: Kelly and Grice have formed quite a formidable 1-2 punch. Which one would you most try to take away if you were to game plan a defense against Arizona St.?

Cody: Without a doubt Kelly. Arizona State would be a shell of itself if you took Grice out of the equation for a whole season. That said, Kelly is the only player on this team who can will the Sun Devils to victory. Take the Stanford game for example. Down 28-0 at the half, Kelly came out of the locker room and threw for 58 yards on the opening drive to lead ASU to its first touchdown. I believe there were only six running back carries in the second half yet Kelly still made a game of it by leading Arizona State on four touchdown drives.

It's definitely worth noting though that much of that success needs to be accredited to Jaelen Strong. Strong was a force to be reckoned with all-game long, having his way Stanford's All-American caliber secondary for 60 minutes. But since injuring his ankle against Washington, Arizona State's jump ball machine hasn't had a catch over 11 yards. Even though everyone keeps downplaying the injury, his route tree seems to have quietly grown shorter.

It would be hard for Kelly to put the team on his back without his go-to target. Then again, he nearly did it against Mizzou on the road last year with a ragtag bunch of receivers before Strong was on campus. Which just goes to show you how much of beneficial it is to have an accurate, dual-threat quarterback on the collegiate level.

BTD: At least up in these parts, we haven't heard as much about the Arizona St. receivers, and Strong wasn't with the Sun Devils last year. Can you give Beaver fans a scouting report of what, and who, to watch for Saturday night among Kelly's targets?

Cody: Strong came out of nowhere from the JUCO level, and is 6th in the conference in receiving yards, despite only 50 yards over his last three games since his injury. He's already outplayed Paul Richardson, Marqise Lee, Nelson Algholor and Ty Montogomery. He torched Stanford's secondary for 12 catches and 168 yards, many of which came against double coverage.

BTD: Are you satisfied with the season Chris Coyle, another in the long line of good tight ends in the Pac-12, is having? Is he having the impact that will help carry the Sun Devils through the tough November stretch drive?

Cody: I'm perfectly satisfied with Chris Coyle. What I'm not satisfied with is the way this coaching staff is utilizing him. Much like the rest of Arizona State's team, Coyle bulked up this offseason. He's used that added weight to make his presence felt in the run-blocking department in ways he never did before.

Considering how much I've whined about the offensive line, I probably shouldn't criticize Todd Graham and company too much for asking him to stay back a block more often. But Coyle's over-the-middle catching ability is precisely what this offense could use when all goes to hell (as it did last week). Perhaps Strong's ascension has made Coyle's receiving skills a bit expendable this season. While that may be the case, one would assume Coyle's number will be called upon in the intermediate passing game more often this week. Even if Strong is 100 percent, Arizona State is going to need all the firepower it can muster against an offense like the Beavers.

BTD: Turning to the defense, everyone rightly hears about Will Sutton. Who else has stood out to you on the Arizona St. defense? Is Sutton the "must read" on every play for an opponent? Or is someone else the player Mannion must locate on every play?

Cody: There are plenty of talented defenders around Sutton, but he's the man that makes the magic happen. Don't let the numbers fool you either; the disruption is still there. This year, he's just demanding more attention and putting his teammates in a better position to succeed.

Arizona State's front seven is loaded with pass rushing threats and you can bet they'll be gearing up to bring the heat. Carl Bradford doesn't have a ton of pass rushing moves at his disposal but what he lacks in creativity he makes up for with a relentless motor. Davon Coleman and Gannon Conway are both have breakthrough years as well and their versatility has allowed for a heightened level of unexpectedness.

In the secondary, Osahon Irabor and Alden Darby each provide a steady presence. Irabor can hang with the best of them and he's also an asset in the run defense department. Darby is a ball hawk who is rarely out of place. Those are the main names to remember since this game will be heavily pass-oriented.

BTD: How will Arizona St. go about defending Sean Mannion? Will it be an emphasis on pressure, or more max protect in coverage?

Cody: Without a doubt, pressure is what Arizona State's defense revolves around. When the front seven isn't able to collapse the pocket with reasonable consistency, ASU's secondary tends to be exposed. I expect Graham to be nearly as aggressive as he was against Notre Dame with his blitz schemes. The Sun Devils can afford to sell out too with the amount of ground that linebackers Salamo Fiso and Chris Young can cover.

This one is going to come down to whether or not Oregon State's max protection can hold up or not. Graham sent wave after wave of pass rushers against Notre Dame but to no avail. Tommy Rees recognized where the pressure was going to come from presnap and shifted the protection like a maestro conducting a symphony. If Mannion and Oregon State's offensive line can do they same, they're going to pick Arizona State apart.

BTD: How about Brandin Cooks? Does Arizona St. go wide side/narrow side with their corners, or will someone primarily follow Cooks regardless of where he lines up? Will Arizona St. bracket him? Or press with help over the top?

Cody: Arizona State had some success bracketing Marqise Lee earlier this season, so I wouldn't be surprised to see that implemented again. But you're guess is as good as mine. I doubt they think Mannion will be as easily rattled as Cody Kessler would if they took away his No. 1 target. Then again, Kessler was having a helluva game against Arizona State before it all came crashing down in the second half. But life was easy for Kessler because the Sun Devils couldn't figure out USC's run game to save their lives.

Clearly, Arizona State won't have to worry about that against Oregon State. And with the way the Beavers are built, I think the Sun Devils have to be licking their chops. Arizona State is built to pulverize one-dimensional teams like this. The Devils force an average of 6.9 three-and-outs a game (second most nationally). Their only weakness is stopping the run, mostly because they're so undersized. With bulk not being an issue, the Devils will be allowed to take advantage of their speed and versatility. And the Beavers haven't even seen Sutton at full power yet. In last season's matchup, he said he was only at 75 percent as he worked his way back from a knee injury.

BTD: Obviously, Sun Devil fans are feeling pretty good about the job Todd Graham has done. How much has been x's and o's, and how much of the success has been a result of the much discussed change in culture Graham brought? Do you have any particular concerns going forward? Or are the Sun Devils poised to become a regular contender in the Pac-12 South, and among the conference's elite teams?

Cody: I'd say it's both. He has the city buying into the direction of the program and he's infused the team with some much-needed tradition as well. As for the x's and o's, I believe his vision is ideal for Pac-12 football. Graham has always been about a fast-paced (or "high-octane") offense that feeds off an aggressive, opportunistic defense. Pretty much tailor made for this conference's style of play, don't ya think?

That's not to say the man walks on water. He's quite slow at making in-game adjustments, especially on the offensive side. At times, it almost comes across as plain stubbornness. Graham also seems to be too defensive oriented if that makes any sense.

Obviously that's his background, but offensive coordinator Mike Norvell could use a friendly nudge every once in a while. For whatever reason, Norvell will inexplicably move away from ASU's strengths for extended periods of time. Don't get me wrong, Norvell is a creative play-caller. He just gets a little too cute now and then and Graham doesn't seem to hold him accountable for it.

What Graham is most known for would probably be his propensity to call defensive timeouts. It's basically a running joke among ASU fans but at the same time, he's 8-for-11 in forcing fourth down when he calls a defensive timeout on third down. Pretty crazy.

BTD: Finally, the big news last week was Athletic Director Steve Patterson, whom most Oregon St. fans are very familiar with from his days up here with the Portland Trailblazers, moving on to take the Texas AD job. What happens now in Tempe? Were you satisfied with the job Patterson did?

Cody: Huge fan of Patterson's work, and I wish him only the best. He was quick to admit his mistakes (such as the Sparky makeover) and never seemed overly satisfied with any of his moves. Instead, he was always looking ahead at what he could do next to improve the program. I wont take the time to tally off his accomplishments, but here's a list if you're interested. I'll just say that Texas found themselves one of the best in the biz, and there's no better man to restore that program to greatness.

As for the ASU's next AD, I'm not too worried. Arizona State is an appealing program in college football's fastest rising conference. What's not to like?

Thanks again Cody! Really looking forward to getting down your way this weekend!