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San Diego State Aztecs vs. Arizona State Sun Devils Preview and Prediction

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Okay, before we get to the upcoming San Diego State-Arizona State game, let’s see a quick show of hands: Who here thought New Mexico State would give Arizona State a six-point game in Tempe last week? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

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Well neither did I. In fact, that 37-31 escape by Todd Graham's Sun Devils was one of the off-the-radar scores that jumped off the page to me. Were the Devils that bad? Were the Aggies that good?

Meanwhile, San Diego State was cruising along against FCS member UC Davis, winning 38-17. Which might not sound great, but consider that it was a 38-3 rout before late-game scrubs allowed a couple of touchdowns and the offense stagnated, furrowing the brow of SDSU head honcho Rocky Long. More about that in a bit.

So that leads to this question: What’s going to happen in Tempe when the Aztecs deal with the Devils on Saturday? I know it’s early, but just like Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil to be able to become the best blues guitarist in the world, these two counterparts are meeting at what could be The Crossroads to the rest of their seasons.

San Diego State at Arizona State

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 9 at 11 p.m. ET

TV Channel: Pac 12 Networks

Spread: Arizona State -4

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Three Things to Watch

1. Arizona State’s offensive line

Get this — New Mexico State had an FBS-low 11 sacks all last season. Eleven. Last Thursday vs. the Sun Devils, the Aggies crashed through to sack Manny Wilkins seven times and had 14 tackles for a loss overall. Aye-yaye-yaye. The O-line will also be taxed with formulating some kind of running game to keep the pressure off Wilkins and Co. The Devils produced 321 of their 400 yards of offense via the pass. Senior center A.J. McCollum and his line mates have got to get a good push on the youthful but capable Aztec front seven. Also, the Devils will have to take to the air with caution, because the Aztecs led the nation in interceptions last year. They are notorious ball hawks.

2. Aztecs ground & pound

Sure, SDSU had to say good-bye to NCAA all-time career rushing leader Donnel Pumphrey, but weep no tears here: Rashaad Penny posted 197 yards on the ground vs. UCD and earned Mountain West Player of the Week honors. As a team, SDSU ran for 276 yards with a 5.3 yards per carry average last week and will look to establish the running game right from the gun again. But QB Christian Chapman went 16-for-21 for 220 yards, distributing the ball well to all his receivers, an element that was lacking last season when dump-offs to the running backs seemed to be the air game’s M.O. This could be a long night for that Sun Devil defense.

3. The fourth quarter

The Sun Devils have zero confidence in their second- and third-teamers on defense. What’s the best indication of that? Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett (of recent Baylor fame) did not make a single substitution for the first three quarters vs. New Mexico State. Can you imagine if he tries to play his starters that long against an Aztec team that is fully capable of playing some smashmouth football with Penny running roughshod? But don’t forget — as we mentioned, the Aztecs had a comfy 38-3 lead after three quarters vs. UC Davis, only to see their third- and fourth-teamers get outscored 14-0 in the fourth quarter. So keep an eye on who is getting the better push as this game reaches the end. It could come down to whose backups play better, later.

Final Analysis

If you’re into that whole history-is-an-indicator thing, Arizona State is unbeaten against the visitors from Montezuma Mesa, going 10-0-1 in their eleven meetings. The last time they faced each other was in 2007, a 34-27 win for ASU. The Sun Devils have a real ace in the hole in the fact that they played a pretty clean game last week, having no turnovers and getting just one penalty called against them. If they do that again, I’d say the Devils win by a score or two. But San Diego State is going to be a different kind of problem for ASU, providing more pressure and possessing a much better offense. Even though the game-time temperature should be buzzing near triple-digits, I think the Aztecs are formidable and have the better interior lines for the fourth quarter — especially if they get into ball control mode on offense and pull an oskie or two on defense.

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Prediction: San Diego State 31, Arizona State 24

— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.