Tempe, AZ (SportsNetwork.com) - The 20th-ranked Washington Huskies are desperate to put an end to a losing skid as they travel south to combat the Arizona State Sun Devils in a Pac-12 Conference bout at Sun Devil Stadium.
Despite the hype and the home crowd behind them the Huskies were unable to knock off No. 2 Oregon last weekend as they fell short in a 45-24 decision. It was another tough loss for a team trying to prove itself. Washington fell to Stanford the week prior. Obviously the losses were to top teams but that doesn't matter in the league standings, where the Huskies are a mere 1-2. The back-to-back losses have also forced the 4-2 Huskies down to No. 20 in the national rankings.
"Our season isn't over. We still have more games to win and we have other things to compete for," Washington linebacker Cory Littleton said following the Oregon loss, while fellow linebacker Princeton Fuimaono added "We start looking forward to Arizona State today. We're going to come out and play a good game."
Arizona State is trying to get back into the national spotlight. The Sun Devils rose as high as No. 22 this season but fell out after a 37-34 loss to Notre Dame two weeks ago. Arizona State bounced back in a big way last weekend with a 54-13 rout of Colorado. The Sun Devils now own a 4-2 record, while having a 2-1 mark against league foes. Now they will set their sights on the Huskies.
"After the (Colorado) game, there was nothing but talk of Washington. We have a heck of a football team coming in here next week and we've already had six ball games," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said after the win over the Buffaloes. "We checked one off tonight, that's 2-0 in the Pac-12 South, 2-1 overall. Our guys are focused on Washington."
It has been a few years since these Pac-12 foes have squared off. The last meeting came during the 2010 season when Steven Threet tossed a pair of touchdown passes to lead the Sun Devils to a 24-14 victory. It was the seventh straight win for Arizona State in the all-time series, which is currently tied at 15 wins apiece.
In the first three games of the season it looked as if Washington might be the new offensive power in the conference. The Huskies tallied at least 590 yards in each of those contests. However, since then they have been a bit more pedestrian by Pac-12 standards. In the last three games the Huskies have averaged 424.7 yards of offense, including a season-low 376 yards against Oregon.
Bishop Sankey certainly wasn't to blame for the offensive struggles the Huskies had against Oregon. Though he did fumble once, Sankey finished the game with 167 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, getting the bulk of that production in the second half. Sankey leads the country in rushing yards (899) and is tied for third in the nation in rushing touchdowns.
Despite how good Sankey has been the offense revolves around Keith Price. The Huskies' signal caller has had moments of brilliance mixed with some bouts of indecision this season. Against Oregon, Price threw for just 182 yards and one touchdown to match an interception, while completing 19-of-32 pass attempts. Price is often able to extend plays with his feet but sometimes holds the ball too long. Price did both against Oregon. Overall Price has thrown for 1,576 yards, 12 touchdowns and four interceptions on 69.3 percent passing.
Price has done a good job of keeping his receivers happy this season with three different players with at least 20 receptions. Jaydon Mickens (34 receptions, 323 yards, two TDs) has been reliable, though he had a key drop against Oregon. Meanwhile Kevin Smith (24 receptions, 389 yards, two TDs) and Kasen Williams (24 receptions, 374 yards, TD) have also been critical performers. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (16 receptions, 185 yards, three TDs) is a favorite target in the red zone.
Though it got gashed for 631 total yards and 30 first downs by Oregon, the Washington defense did show some strength by holding the Ducks to a season-low six touchdowns. It's not saying much but it certainly points in a more positive light for a Washington unit that is fourth in the league in total defense (345 ypg). The Huskies had been the top ranked defense in the Pac-12 entering last weekend.
Washington will need to be on its toes defensively again this week as the team faces a talented offensive squad in Arizona State. The Sun Devils are posting 44.2 points and nearly 500 yards of total offense per game, ranking third and fifth respectively, in the conference in each category.
The scoring responsibilities have largely fallen to Marion Grice. The hybrid running back, who will also line up on the outside at times, has scored a national-best 15 total touchdowns this season (10 rushing, five receiving). Grice isn't just used around the goal line as he leads the team in rushing attempts (90) and rushing yards (395), while posting impressive numbers for a running back through the air (29 receptions, 265 yards).
Having a weapon like Grice takes some of the pressure off quarterback Taylor Kelly, who has thrown for 1,965 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, while completing 62 percent of his pass attempts with six interceptions. Kelly can also make teams pay on the ground, though he has been more limited in that area this season.
Grice isn't the only player that Kelly has been getting his passes to. Jaelen Strong (42 receptions, 678 yards, four TDs) has been one of the most dangerous wideouts in the country, ranking third in the Pac-12 in receiving yards. While Strong is the deep-threat, D.J. Foster, who also gets time at running back, has been a solid possession receiver. Foster is averaging just 10.4 yards per reception but has 32 catches on the year.
In terms of overall defense Arizona State has been a mediocre squad. The Sun Devils are fifth in total yards allowed (372.2 ypg) in the conference. However, the numbers show that they have been one of the better teams in the conference in stopping the pass. In fact other than Washington and Oregon, no team in the Pac-12 lets up fewer passing yards per game than the Sun Devils (203.3 ypg). The play in the secondary of Alden Darby (two INTs, four passes defended), Osahon Irabor (two INTs) and Robert Nelson (two INTs) has been critical.