TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State did everything it was supposed to and then some in Week 1, rolling over FCS opponent Northern Arizona 63-6. Week 2 will not be so easy.
Hosting Illinois on Saturday, the Sun Devils face their first true test of the season, one that could offer a glimpse into how competitive they will be the remainder of the year.
“This is a big game for us, a very critical game,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “I think the first five games of this season are so critical for us as a program. Obviously, they get harder and harder and harder. It jumps up a whole bunch harder this week.”
Illinois is certainly not a powerhouse, nor is it banging on the door of the top 25 after an as-expected 24-7 win over Western Michigan last week. The Fighting Illini are, however, a respected Big Ten team, one that beat ASU last season.
Both the Sun Devils and Illini have been through a great deal since they met in Champaign a year ago. Both got off to promising starts only to see their seasons spiral out of control, reaching mediocre bowl games and firing their head coaches.
Saturday’s matchup presents an early crossroads for both Graham and Illinois coach Tim Beckman as both try to take a first step in leading perennially underachieving programs to new heights. It’s been clear all week there’s a mutual respect between the two coaches for the other’s team is capable of.
“Arizona State is a good, good football team, a very good team in my opinion,” Beckman said. “After watching them on film, seeing what they can do and the athletes they have on offense and defense, they’re a very good football team. We’re going to have to have our ‘A’ game ready.”
Graham offered unsolicited praise of the Illinois defense more than once this week. Though it runs a different scheme now, the Illinois defense ranked seventh in the nation last year, allowing 286.15 yards per game.
“Illinois’s defense is special,” Graham said. “So this game is obviously a very quality Big Ten opponent that has got a very physical defense that can cause you a lot of problems.”
Junior defensive end Michael Buchanan, a second-team All-Big Ten selection last season, might cause the most problems. Last week he recorded two tackles for loss and an interception. Playmaking linebackers Jonathan Brown and Ashante Williams also create a formidable threat in the middle.
“We played them last year, so I know they’re a big team, a physical team,” ASU senior running back Cameron Marshall said. “We’re just going to have to match that physicality.”
The Illini defense last week forced six fumbles and intercepted three passes. Western Michigan was unable to establish any sort of ground game, finishing with minus-6 rushing yards on 19 attempts. That kind of run defense could stifle ASU, which likely will emphasize a run-heavy attack that gained 305 yards between seven ball carriers last week.
“We’ve got to be able to run the ball to win the game,” Marshall said. “We understand that going into this game. We know that we need to run the ball to be successful.”
How ASU’s rushing attack fares against a tough defense like Illinois’s should give an indication of how it might perform against similarly proficient Pac-12 defenses later in the year. The same applies to redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Eubank, whose size and mobility are being used to complement starter Taylor Kelly.
Kelly, too, will be challenged in earnest for the first time as a Division I quarterback. He picked apart the NAU defense last week, completing 15 of 19 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown. Against Illinois, he’s certain to see greater pressure, tighter coverage and smaller windows.
Illinois junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase may not even see the field after he suffered an ankle injury last week, forcing him out of the game early. Beckman has sent mixed signals all week about Scheelhaase’s status. He said Wednesday he would decide Thursday if Scheelhaase or one of Illinois’s backups (sophomore Reilly O’Toole and junior Miles Osei) would start but added that he would not reveal his decision before Saturday.
Graham, meanwhile, said Thursday that ASU was simply preparing to face Scheelhaase, who a year ago ran for 80 yards and passed for 135 against the Sun Devils.
“I feel pretty certain he’ll play,” Graham said. “He’s the best quarterback on the team, so you prepare for him. What does it do if he doesn’t play? You’re not any less prepared.”
Scheelhaase may not be an elite quarterback of the type ASU will see at lease once in Pac-12 play (think USC’s Matt Barkley), but he is a tough, athletic signal caller who can make big plays. Whether or how his ankle limits him, though, could be a major factor in his effectiveness.
While Illinois presents ASU an increased challenge on multiple fronts, the Sun Devils’ greatest test might be maintaining a high standard of discipline set last week. Against NAU, ASU had its lowest single-game penalty yardage total in nearly five seasons, finishing with just four penalties — none on defense — for 30 yards.
Graham stressed again this week the importance of limiting mistakes, which won’t be as easy against Illinois.
“We had 12 mental errors last week on defense, we had probably 16 on offense,” Graham said. “We can’t have those and be successful.
“We’ve got to eliminate the mental errors. The team that wins the turnover battle and has the least amount of penalties will win this game.”