Kliff Kingsbury and the Red Raiders look for some payback against the Sun Devils after last season's loss
Arizona State and Texas Tech played one of the wildest games of the 2016 season in Tempe last year, a game in which the Sun Devils escaped with a 68-55 win. It’s very early in the 2017 season, but both teams appear similarly equipped this year. After both missed out on bowl games last season, Saturday’s matchup in Lubbock is pivotal for two coaches on the hot seat looking to get back to the postseason.
Arizona State at Texas Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 16 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX Sports Net
Spread: Texas Tech -7.5
Three Things to Watch
The Red Raiders were explosive offensively in their 56-10 win over FCS member Eastern Washington, and new starting quarterback Nic Shimonek was the star of the show. In his first career start, Shimonek completed his first 14 pass attempts and finished 26-for-30 with 384 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. The senior connected with Derrick Willies on a 75-yard TD and found Keke Coutee for scores of 68 and 17 yards.
Likewise, Arizona State signal-caller Manny Wilkins has carried the Sun Devils offensively. After beating out Alabama transfer Blake Barnett for the starting job during fall camp, the strong-armed Wilkins has completed 70 percent of his passes for 598 yards and four touchdowns without an interception through his first two starts this season (although he fumbled twice, losing one). Wilkins has spread the ball around well, as four Sun Devils have posted at least 100 receiving yards and one TD, with three players each catching TD passes of 53 yards or longer.
2. Defensive improvement
Statistically speaking, Texas Tech and Arizona State were the two worst defenses in the country last season. The Red Raiders ranked dead last nationally in both scoring defense (43.7 points allowed per game) and total defense (554.3 total yards allowed per game), and ranked 126th in yards allowed per play (7.05). The Sun Devils ranked No. 124 in scoring defense (39.8), 127th in total defense (520.5) and yards allowed per play (7.07), and finished dead last in pass defense (357.4 passing yards allowed per game).
In an incredibly small sample, both units have shown some progress this season. Texas Tech held a typically explosive Eastern Washington offense to 301 total yards, including just 81 rushing yards (2.3 yards per carry) and 4.18 yards per play last week.
Arizona State has been less successful overall, struggling in the passing game against New Mexico State and failing to slow down San Diego State on the ground in Week 2. However, the Sun Devils allowed an average of 33.5 points, 450.5 total yards, 235.5 passing yards and 5.87 yards per play — improvement across the board.
3. Arizona State offensive line
Wilkins has put up great numbers, and the Sun Devils are dangerous when he has time to operate. Unfortunately, the Arizona State offensive line has struggled to keep the pocket clean. Wilkins has been sacked 11 times this season, and the Sun Devils have surrendered 12 sacks overall, which is more than all but two other FBS teams this year. Texas Tech had one sack in Week 1.
Both Arizona State head coach Todd Graham and Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury are on the hot seat, and both need a win to build positive momentum heading into the conference schedule that begins later this month. The Red Raiders were impressive in their only performance to date, especially defensively, but it’s important not to put too much stock in one game against an FCS opponent.
The Sun Devils looked great early against New Mexico State before letting up late, but were beaten in all three phases of the game by the Aztecs. San Diego State barely outgained ASU 352-342 but held a 279-44 edge on the ground (and held the Sun Devils to 1.4 yards per carry). Plus, the Aztecs won the turnover battle 1-0 and scored on a 99-yard kickoff return.
Expect another shootout, and for the home team to come out on top.
Prediction: Texas Tech 41, Arizona State 37
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.