After going through the meat grinder that was back-to-back losses to top-five teams, the Huskies now face a road trip down to Tempe to play Arizona State. Like the Huskies, the Sun Devils are 4-2. Both teams first lost on the road to Stanford, though ASU was not nearly as close to victory. The difference lies in the second loss. UW was beaten 45-24 on Saturday by #2 Oregon. The Sun Devils lost just over a full week ago to Notre Dame during a down year for the Fighting Irish. In response to that neutral site defeat Coach Graham’s team dismantled poor, hapless Colorado at home.
While the ASU defense is solid and star-studded with standouts like 2012 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton at defensive tackle and the beastly Carl Bradford at linebacker, it is the offense that truly drives a team that spent the 2013 off-season collecting a great deal of hype as a chic pick to win the Pac-12 South. While that hasn’t gone exactly as planned (UCLA is 5-0 and ranked #9), the offense has performed as advertised, and is unquestionably led by junior quarterback Taylor Kelly, who burst on to the scene last year as a first time starter, scoring 29 touchdowns to nine interceptions while throwing for over 3,000 yards.
Tossing to breakout sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong (42 catches for 678 yards and four scores) and dynamic running backs DJ Foster (32 catches, 334 receiving yards, one receiving TD) and Marion Grice (29 catches, 265 receiving yards, five receiving TDs), Kelly has jumped out to a solid start to his second year running the Sun Devil offense. Through only six games he has already amassed 1,965 passing yards, meaning he is set to hurdle past his 2012 total of 3,039 with games to spare. He has also tallied 16 scores while running for 165 yards and an additional touchdown via the ground (he tallied an impressive 516 rushing yards last year).
For Washington this all sounds like bad news, but luckily for the Huskies there have been a handful of weak points in Kelly’s game that are made obvious by looking at basic stats. First of all, he hasn’t been as accurate this year. After completing 67% of his passes in 2012, he has regressed to 62% so far in ’13. A totally solid number, especially for a guy that is throwing an average of 39.5 times a game, but nowhere near elite.
Also, after throwing nine total picks last year, Kelly already has six through six games. Once again, a 16 to 6 TD to INT ratio is very solid (Price’s is 12 to 4), but when you look a little closer at game-by-game stats, it becomes clear that Kelly’s ratio is padded by two winning performances against FCS Sacramento State and Pac-12 basement-dweller Colorado. He threw five scores and zero picks against Sac State to start the year and then threw two scores and no picks in limited action in the blowout of the Buffaloes. In the four games that fell in between those bookends, Arizona State went 2-2 and Kelly threw a total of six interceptions, two each in the losses to Stanford and Notre Dame.
Through that four game stretch, his TD to INT ratio goes from 16:6 to 9:6, a much more mediocre number. Of course, if you take the blowout victory stat lines away from any talented quarterback, it will likely hurt his overall totals, but I believe that even in a fairly small sample size Kelly’s tendency to throw a pick or two every time he plays a respectable defense is significant, even if he usually racks up 300+ yards and 2-3 scores in the process.
Washington’s pass defense may have taken a brutal beating on Saturday from Heisman front-runner Marcus Mariota, but even after surrendering well over 300 passing yards and three passing touchdowns in that single defeat, the UW pass defense still ranks 1st in the conference in total passing yards allowed and 2nd in opponent passer rating. Stanford QB Kevin Hogan was held to 100 total passing yards at his home stadium. Joe Southwick had 152 yards, a pick, and no scores.
Kelly is likely to surpass both of those totals given his talent level and the nature of ASU’s offense, especially at home, but if Kelly throws for around 280 yards and two scores along with a key turnover or two, it’s likely that Price and Sankey will be able to keep up and eventually take control.
Another element that may work in Washington’s favor is Kelly’s limited number of targets. He has Jaelon Strong, who has played like a genuine star pretty much all year long, but after that his next two most productive receivers are two halfbacks. Part of that is Coach Graham utilizing the talents of two very dynamic pass-catching, big-play backs (Grice has 15 total touchdowns already), but the drop-off after Grice and Foster makes it pretty clear that wide receiver is a thin position for the Sun Devils.
The skill of linebackers like Shaq Thompson and John Timu in defending the pass should make controlling Grice and Foster as receivers an easier task than it has been for most teams in the conference, while Strong’s status as a clear-cut number one receiver should allow Coach Wilcox to bring a safety over-top to limit his chances of taking over the game and to wait eagerly for Kelly to start forcing throws to his best target.
Kelly, Grice, and the offense will put together drives, make at least a couple big plays, and score at least a few touchdowns. However, if the Huskies are able to keep the ball in front of them while focusing in on Strong, Grice, and Foster, they can force the Sun Devils to earn every first down and eventually catch Kelly making a mistake or two, just like he has in every competitive game he’s played in this year.