In this decade, San Diego State has enjoyed its most prosperous era since legendary coach Don Coryell led the Aztecs in the 1960s and early '70s. Coach Rocky Long fields a routine contender for the Mountain West Conference championship, built on tough defense and a power run game. The Aztecs won 32 games from 2015 through 2017, and two of the contests that planted San Diego State's flag most prominently on the national landscape in that time came against Pac-12 competition a season ago. Running back Rashaad Penny scored touchdowns on the rush, via reception and on a kickoff return in the Aztecs' win at Arizona State. The Sun Devils aim to avenge that loss and finish a perfect nonconference portion of their regular season when San Diego State alum Herm Edwards returns to his alma mater as Arizona State's head coach.
ASU rolls into SDCCU Stadium for the Saturday night affair fresh off an upset over Michigan State. The combined efforts of an outstanding defense and big plays from wide receiver N'Keal Harry and quarterback Manny Wilkins pushed the Sun Devils to the first marquee win of a new era.
Arizona State at San Diego State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Arizona State -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Nowhere to run
Through two games, two of the six best defenses against the run are No. 6 San Diego State (51.5 yards per game) and No. 1 Arizona State (32.5 yards per game). That their numbers are similar is no coincidence, since the two have similar looks.
Perhaps the most significant hire Herm Edwards made for his new coaching staff was defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales, who spent several seasons working on Rocky Long's staff at San Diego State. Gonzales brings the expertise of having worked with Long's innovative 3-3-5 odd stack defense, and it's working out nicely for the Sun Devils in the first few games.
Rashaad Penny's gone, but in the same manner in which Penny adeptly replaced 2,000-yard rusher Donnel Pumphrey, Juwan Washington has stepped up to the challenge of replacing Penny. San Diego State's offense is predicated primarily on the run — and may have to be even more reliant on it this week — but must solve the defense Long helped to master.
Arizona State's own rushing attack was stifled last week, though Eno Benjamin has shown promise transitioning from change-of-pace to every-down back. The big-play threat of Wilkins-to-Harry is more effective against a defense looking to play run in the manner San Diego State did Week 1 vs. Stanford — which, in turn, opened up the potential for deep passes to the Cardinal's J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
2. Agnew hope?
An injury to quarterback Christian Chapman has thrust Ryan Agnew into the lineup for San Diego State. With Arizona State's impressive run defense through the first two games, the onus is likely on Agnew to come out clicking via the pass to keep the Sun Devils honest.
Easier said than done. Gonzales' zone pressures set up defenders in perfect position to garner takeaways.
Tight end Kahale Warring can be a reliable target for Agnew to pepper on short and intermediate routes, feeling out the Sun Devils pass defense before throwing to Tim Wilson Jr. and Fred Trevillion, Chapman's two big-play threats at wide receiver.
3. Real deal N'Keal
San Diego State has boasted some game-changing defensive backs in recent years. The current standouts in the Aztecs secondary are Tariq Thompson, a ball-hawking safety, and Ron Smith, a talented cornerback.
After Stanford badly burned San Diego State with deep balls, however, the need for the Aztecs to come up with some key plays on such routes is magnified this week. Arizona State's N'Keal Harry is a playmaker in a vein similar to Stanford's J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who went off for three touchdowns and more than 200 yards against the Aztecs, with the team's cornerbacks trying to cover him man-to-man.
Harry may be a candidate to see more zone coverage than man. His ability to make catches in traffic amid multiple defenders is a potential game-changer for the Sun Devils' offense.
Picked to finish last place in the Pac-12 South, Arizona State is already exceeding expectations before even playing a conference game. The Sun Devils could roll into conference play (and a showdown with Washington, which ASU upset a season ago to help deny the Huskies a repeat North Division title) sitting at 3-0.
Rocky Long has done a remarkable job establishing this program as a perennial winner, but San Diego State faces a bad matchup in Arizona State. The Sun Devils' offense is multifaceted, and its defense is playing at an elite level.