(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)
Arizona State’s quarterback is healthy, one of its top wide receivers is returning to action and the Sun Devils are facing a team they have beaten 11 times in their last 12 games.
But ASU is still an unsurprisingly big underdog for this Saturday’s game against No. 5 Washington, being treated to a post-bye-week meeting with likely the best team on its schedule.
ASU will be banking on the inherent advantages of extra prep time and a week of rest, a break they have taken to heal some important players and retool an injury-impacted defense.
Quarterback Manny Wilkins was visible limping following ASU’s September 30 loss at Stanford and during last week’s slate of bye week practices, the redshirt junior quarterback was in running shoes and only a partial participant during drills.
This week however, the Sun Devils’ starter has shown no signs of ailment. They will need him at his best against the nation’s second-best defense on Saturday.
“We have a top-5 program in the country right now coming in here to play on ESPN on Saturday night,” Wilkins said. “I think guys are ready. The pressure is always to just go out and win football games.”
Aiding in that effort will be sophomore wide out John Humphrey, who is in line to play for the first time since week two. The deep threat had over 100 yards in his Sun Devil debut against New Mexico State in August, but had his knee twisted during the following week’s loss to San Diego State.
Humphrey has been wearing a brace on the knee during practice the last couple weeks. However, he has been healthy enough to not only jump back into the offensive game-planning, but ran some drills as a defensive back as well.
“I’m excited to play both ways,” Humphrey said, who had also played some defense during the preseason. “This week, they are teaching me different techniques and different things about defense to better myself to get prepared for this week.”
Explosive performances from other ASU receivers N’Keal Harry and Kyle Williams have sustained the Sun Devils offense during Humphrey’s absence. But in facing a Huskies defense that plays most snaps with only one deep safety, the speedy target will have his chances to make his signature long ball grabs.
“They are going to go one (safety) high, and they are going to offenses operate down the field,” receivers coach Rob Likens said. “They are going to make you throw and catch those contested press coverage catches.”
REARRANGING THE DEFENSE
After the season-ending injury to leading pass rusher Koron Crump, ASU defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has been toying with his personnel and schemes in recent weeks, taking a trial and error approach to replace his most disruptive defensive player.
The Sun Devils tried to make a like-for-like switch by brining backup linebacker Abe Thompson to the first team in Crump’s place. They also moved tight end Jay Jay Wilson to defense, hopeful his size and speed would help him emulate Crump’s pass-rushing abilities.
This week however, ASU has moved defensive lineman Alani Latu to the edge instead. Last year, Latu spent some time at the position and said earlier this season that he feels comfortable in any spot along the front six. But with Latu moved, Bennett will be looking to backup linemen like Renell Wren and George Lea to play in the trenches.
“We have got a couple of different rotations,” Bennett said. “We are going to try to play some more guys, sometimes to get more athletic. We have been in a semi-quandary since we lost Koron.”
Bennett mentioned that challenges against effective running games from Oregon and Stanford have affected his ability to find the right combination of players up front.
Injuries might be part of the game, but that doesn’t make them any easier to adjust to.
“Players are going to get hurt, so you just have to be ready to step up,” senior linebacker J’Marcus Rhodes said, someone who was forced to switch from safety to SPUR linebacker after injuries last year.
WASHINGTON’S HOUSE OF HORRORS
Last season in Seattle, the Huskies dismantled a battered ASU side in a 44-18 rout during their march to a Pac-12 title. But that result was an anomaly in a series that had been dominated by the Sun Devils for well over a decade prior.
Games at Sun Devil Stadium have been especially unfriendly to Washington, losers of six straight to ASU in Tempe. The Huskies haven’t scored more than 24 points in any of those defeats.
Replicating the performances of years past will be a tall task for ASU this week however. Behind Heisman candidate quarterback Jake Browning and explosive running back Myles Gaskin, the Huskies have averaged better than 430 yards per game this season.
ASU’s best chance for an upset will likely have to be spurred on from the other side of the ball.
“They are not the same. They are quite different actually,” Wilkins said of how this year’s Huskies compare to the 2016 version. “They lost some big-time playmakers secondary-wise. They lost some real guys. That being said, they have some guys that they brought back in that are talented.”