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Arizona State Sun Devils vs. UTSA Roadrunners Preview and Prediction

Demario Richard

Demario Richard

Kalen Ballage's record-setting, eight-touchdown performance against Texas Tech lifted Arizona State to an impressive victory last Saturday night. The Sun Devils are now among an increasingly rare club of Pac-12 teams with unblemished records. Half the league ended Week 2 with at least one notch in the loss column.

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The Sun Devils can cap off the non-conference portion of the 2016 season undefeated Friday against UTSA, the upstart Conference USA program.

Arizona State's trek to San Antonio puts ASU in another rare category: Power Five programs willing to play a Group of Five program on the Group of Five team's turf. The trip continues head coach Todd Graham's ongoing mission to plant a flag in his home state of Texas, marking the third Sun Devil game in the Lone Star state since the 2013 season.

While Arizona State is a heavy favorite, Cal and Washington State both took losses playing on Group of Five turf in Week 2.

Arizona State at UTSA

Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 16 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Line: Arizona State -18.5 

Three Things to Watch

1. Ballage's Encore

Kalen Ballage made quite a debut on the national stage with seven rushing touchdowns and an eighth via reception in Arizona State's defeat of Texas Tech. His performance tied Howard Griffith's eight-touchdown deluge on Southern Illinois in 1990 for the NCAA single-game record.

What will the junior back do for an encore? Tough to say, given Ballage's touches are typically limited.

The Sun Devils' leading rusher of 2015, Demario Richard, remained the focal point of the run game against Texas Tech with 30 carries for 109 yards. Ballage should continue to be a secondary option in the running game, complementing Richard and dual-threat quarterback Manny Wilkins.

Ballage's showing in Week 2 perhaps speaks less to his own move toward individual stardom and more about Arizona State finding another weapon in a deep, run-oriented arsenal.

2. Getting into the Backfield

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Two weeks into the campaign, UTSA has allowed more sacks (8) than all but five teams in the FBS. That does not bode well for a matchup with one of the more blitz-happy programs in college football.

Graham calls for the blitz aggressively, occasionally to a fault. Against a young and still building UTSA offense, however, look for the Sun Devils to feast.

UTSA could run either Dalton Sturm or Jared Johnson out at quarterback, but either one can anticipate heavy and consistent pressure. Arizona State has just three sacks through the first two weeks, uncharateristically low for a Graham defense. This should be the week that changes.

3. Turnover Creation

With the risk inherent in heavy pressure comes the reward of turnovers.

Since Arizona State's been able to get into the backfield less than usual in the first two games, it should come as no surprise the Sun Devils' turnover creation is slightly down at two takeaways in total.

The good news for the ASU defense: it's a small sample size, and a sample that includes facing explosive quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Friday should present more opportunities for takeaways, particularly if the pass rush is as effective as it seems it should be on paper.

Final Analysis

After sputtering out of the gate against Northern Arizona, Texas Tech's visit to Sun Devil Stadium provided Arizona State an early gut-check of sorts. Graham said a win could be a launching pad for bigger and better things, while a loss risked sending a young Sun Devil team still finding its identity into the wrong direction.

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The emphatic response to the moment, particularly on offense, sets a much-needed tone for Arizona State's new-look offense. The Sun Devils are still feeling out the passing element of the offense, but in averaging close to 300 yards per game through the first two, Arizona State's found at least one phase under new coordinator Chip Lindsey that's clicking.

UTSA has cultivated a strong following in just six years of existence, during just five of which the Roadrunners have played in actual games. The Runners have a legitimate home-field advantage playing in the Alamodome, and they used it to nearly pull off an upset the last time a Pac-12 team visited (Arizona in 2014).

First-year head coach Frank Wilson is sitting on a potential gold mine at UTSA. It's a high-potential program, but one still very much finding its identity. The Roadrunners are overmatched against Arizona State.

Prediction: Arizona State 48, UTSA 14

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.