(Photo: Brett Deckert/WCSN)
When it comes to quarterbacks, Jake Browning is the class of the Pac-12.
All of the stars are aligned for him to have his crowning moment of the season against Arizona State on Saturday. His stats speak for themselves.
He has 35 touchdowns to five interceptions, including multiple games with six touchdown passes. His passer rating is near 200. Most of all, he is a top Heisman candidate and considered among the best of the best when it comes to quarterbacks in the NCAA.
Adding to the likely possibility of him putting on a show on Saturday is that ASU’s pass defense is the worst in the country, and is even considered one of the worst of all-time.
Every quarterback who has faced it, from Case Cookus of Northern Arizona to Washington State’s Luke Falk, has had their fair share of success against the secondary.
It’s rare to begin with that the Sun Devils face a Heisman contender in the Todd Graham era. Just four top-10 finishers have gone head-to-head with ASU since 2012, and all have faced better defenses than ASU has put together this season.
The last Heisman contender to go against the Sun Devils was the ever-rare defensive finalist, Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright in the 2014 Territorial Cup. He had 13 tackles, five of which were for a loss, and two sacks in the Wildcats win.
Ka’Deem Carey, a fellow former Wildcat, who finished 10th in the voting in 2013, torched the Sun Devils for 157 yards the previous year.
In general, ASU has been lucky with avoiding Heisman contenders. They did not face 2014 winner Marcus Mariota of Oregon or last year’s second place finisher Christian McCaffrey of Stanford.
Arguably the best overall player it has faced since Graham took over, USC wide receiver Marquise Lee—the highest vote getter the Sun Devils have faced since 2012—fell short of 100 yards. However, Oregon running back Kenjon Barner, also a Heisman hopeful, put up three touchdowns in the Ducks’ game against the Sun Devils.
Browning will be the first Heisman candidate quarterback to face ASU in recent years, and presents the toughest challenge this struggling secondary has faced yet.
It seems to be a shoe-in that he finishes in the top 10 of the voting when it’s all said and done. The unknown is exactly where he will finish. His rough game against USC last week hurt his front-runner status, but it’s unlikely to have removed him completely from the conversation.
ASU bandit safety Marcus Ball compared Browning’s qualities to that of UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen.
“He’s one of those guys who sits in the pocket,” Ball said. “Our job is to get him out of the pocket, flush him out of the pocket, and make him throw on the run or make him throw bad balls and make bad decisions.”
One advantage ASU will have is that they faced Browning last season, and the then-freshman struggled, throwing three interceptions in a Sun Devils victory.
Ball notices a definite progression from last year to this one with the signal caller.
“After watching him this year, although he does take shots down the field, I think he does a pretty good job of not throwing into a whole bunch of traffic,” he said. “He’s one of those guys who has his eyes down field, sets in the pocket and hits his check downs when he needs to. I’ve seen after watching film that he’s growing up from last year to this year. He’s making better decisions.”
Of course, this means that Browning also has a better feel for the ASU defense too.
In one of the games that cemented his Heisman candidacy this season, Browning tore apart a Stanford defense en route to a 44-6 statement win.
Ball broke down a pair of key plays in that game. The first one was a long pass to Dante Pettis. It was described as a pro wing set by Ball, and the play was executed so well due to the running back, Myles Gaskin, stepping up in the pocket, allowing Browning to buy more time.
The second play was a touchdown pass inside the red zone. Ball complimented Browning’s ability on the play to buy time and scramble out of trouble.
“That’s something that Browning does pretty good pretty often,” he said. “He’s a well-polished quarterback. His eyes are always down field, and he likes to sit in the pocket. He has a good offensive line, real big guys. He has a lot of key weapons out there and he enjoys throwing to those guys.”
Indeed it’s weapons like Pettis and John Ross that have made Browning’s job easier. Pettis is nearing 600 yards receiving while Ross is closing in on 900, and they have 26 touchdowns between the two of them.
“When you’re taking snaps behind a 6-foot-5 center, 6-foot-7 tackles and 6-foot-6 guards, that helps your confidence,” Ball said. “It gives you a great deal of belief that your line will get the job done to allow you to throw to those key guys out there like Dante Pettis and John Ross. He sits back with comfort to make those great throws to guys.”
Facing a Heisman candidate is a new wrinkle for Ball and the rest of this defense. The pressure will without a doubt be stiff, but he feels that the unit is up for the challenge on a national stage.
“Does it feel great to hold an offense, hold a team to a low score, or beat a team that’s sixth-ranked in the country? Of course,” Ball said. “I believe that is why we play this game. When any unranked team can beat a team that’s No. 6 in the country, it’s a great feeling. To stop guys like Jake Browning, John Ross and Dante Pettis, to stop the offense to a certain amount of points and win this game, it means a lot to this program, and to this tremendous group of seniors.”
- Malik Lawal, Christian Hill, Cam Smith, Sam Jones and George Lea were all non-participants during the portion of practice that was open to the media. They all were working out on Muscle Beach.
- Dallas Cowboys’ and New York Jets’ scouts were in attendance at practice, as was Athletic Director Ray Anderson.
- During 11-on-0, the first-team offense consisted of Manny Wilkins, Kalen Ballage, N’Keal Harry, Tim White, Fred Gammage, Jay Jay Wilson, Evan Goodman, Steve Miller, A.J. McCollum, Quinn Bailey and Zach Robertson
- The second team was Dillon Sterling-Cole, Nick Ralston, Terrell Chatman, Ellis Jefferson, Kyle Williams, Raymond Epps, Cohl Cabral, Stephon McCray, Tyler McClure, Tyson Rising, and Mason Walter.