(Photo: ASU Athletics)
The Wisconsin Badgers will run the ball. I know that, you know that, and so does the entire state of Arizona. It makes sense when the average weight of your offensive line is 320 pounds. It also doesn’t hurt to have three running backs that have all rushed for at least 250 yards through just two games this season, combining for seven touchdowns.
If Wisconsin’s offensive line consistently beats the Sun Devils’ defensive line and gets to the second and third levels of the Arizona State defense, with those running backs, Bucky will return to Madison victorious.
Now, I don’t envision that happening because the Sun Devils come equipped with two stars on the front line, consensus All-American Will Sutton and freshman All-American Jaxon Hood. But the third piece you may not be so familiar with.
Insert 6’4’’, 280-pound Gannon Conway, who was third on the depth chart at defensive end when camp started. He was able to work his way into the starting lineup by beating out proven senior Davon Coleman and highly hyped junior college transfer Marcus Hardison.
Conway’s strength is his ability to stop the run; he put on 20 pounds in the offseason to improve his ability to fight off offensive lineman and control his gaps. His strength is exactly what the Sun Devils need against the run-heavy Badgers, as Conway will be called upon to control the C-gap (between the tackle and tight end) to bring down Wisconsin’s dynamic running backs.
“I think it’s a great matchup, and basically whoever is gonna get off the ball and be most disciplined is gonna win,” said Conway, a redshirt senior.
Sutton will be faced with double teams all night long, and expect Hood to receive a lot of attention from the Badgers’ offensive line. It is imperative that Conway wins his one-on-one match-ups when they are presented, and makes the Badgers pay for neglecting him.
“Ultimately, you’re going to win that little battle you have with your offensive lineman, but ultimately you’re going to win the whole game,” Conway said.
Although Conway is the starter, he will share playing time with fellow defensive end Davon Coleman, who is the better pass-rusher of the two. Between them, they create a dynamic duo prepared to stop the run or wreck havoc on the quarterback.
“During practice, that is what we have been working on, especially [myself] and Davon [Coleman], we are rotating every two to three plays and that’s going to help us because we are both going to have fresh legs,” Conway said.
“And not only that, we are going to know that, ‘Hey, these are my three reps, I’ve gotta make a play, make a disruption in the backfield,’ so it will help us take advantage of every situation.”
If the Wisconsin Badgers choose to not pay attention to Conway or Coleman, that could be the difference in the game, forcing the ball into the hands of sophomore quarterback Joel Stave. While Stave has had early season success, he has yet to face real competition.
The Badgers generate explosive plays down field mostly from play-action. Without a rushing attack, or at least a consistent one, the threat of the play-action pass no longer needs to be honored. The Sun Devil secondary and linebackers will be able to hone in on Wisconsin’s receivers, taking away big pass plays.
The importance of Conway coming up big when his number is called cannot be overstated. It will force Wisconsin to resort to plan B, throwing the ball, which is exactly what the Sun Devils want. If so, Arizona State will get a big win against a quality opponent, which will thrust the Devils into the AP rankings.
So, it’s simple, just go stop the Badgers from doing what they have been doing for decades: running the football.
You can reach Sam Rabadi on Twitter @Sam_Rabadi or by email email@example.com.