TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State coach Todd Graham never shies away from reminding people where he comes from. Ahead of games like Thursday’s season opener against lower-division Weber State, that means recalling his time at small Division I schools Rice and Tulsa.
From those days, Graham knows what to expect of an opponent like Weber State, which would stop at nothing to score an upset over a nationally ranked FBS foe.
"We’re going to see a lot of stuff," Graham said. "They can onside kick, they can fake a punt. We’ve prepared for every possible thing there is. They don’t have anything to lose, so we’ve got to be smart about that."
Even so, it’s rare a FCS team’s empty-the-playbook effort amounts to enough for an upset of a superior FBS opponent. So for No. 19 ASU, this week seems more an opportunity to warm up for tougher games ahead.
"We definitely feel like we’re better, but at the same time we want to go in and respect all of our opponents and make sure we’re executing on both sides of the ball," cornerback Lloyd Carrington said. "We want to get better, not play down to their level of competition.
"If we come out and dominate and it gets us rolling for the tougher opponents."
ASU vs. WEBER STATE
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Where: Sun Devil Stadium TV: Pac-12 Networks (Roxy Bernstein, Yogi Roth) Radio: KTAR 92.3 FM (Tim Healey, Jeff Van Raaphorst)
With nine new starters on defense and five on offense, the Sun Devils have plenty to learn about themselves. They may learn more in games against better competition, but the season opener provides a first evaluation and a chance to set the tone.
After going 10-4 and winning the Pac-12 South last season, ASU has set the bar higher. The baseline: 11 wins and a Pac-12 championship. But ASU doesn’t stop there.
For each game it would take to reach the Sun Devils’ ultimate goal of a national championship, ASU has a rock. A rock is broken immediately after each win. Naturally, the Sun Devils hope to break a few more rocks this season.
"Your first game is always kind of a measuring stick to see where you’re at, and then you go to work," Graham said. "We’ve got 15 rocks that we’ve got to break out and the first one starts Thursday. Our guys are ready to go."
Offense, offense, offense. If Weber State’s 70-7 loss to Utah last season is any indication, this game could get ugly. ASU has what should be one of the Pac-12’s — if not the nation’s — top scoring offenses this season, and even the best FCS team would struggle to contain it. ASU may let off the gas in the second half, but don’t be surprised if the Sun Devils hang 70 on the Wildcats.
Special teams. This is one Graham says he’ll be watching closely this week, even against FCS competition. Graham wants to see marked improvement from ASU’s return units. With freshman running back Kalen Ballage handling kickoff returns and senior safety Damarious Randall on punt returns, this will be worth watching. ASU has one return game score in the last two seasons.
"That was probably the worst thing we did last year, and we’ve worked very hard, so I better see some great results," Graham said.
Youth movement. ASU expects to start two freshmen on defense — linebacker D.J. Calhoun and defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood — and play at least six freshmen in all. This doesn’t come as a surprise given all ASU lost to graduation last season, and it should provide a look at a few potential stars, including running backs Ballage and Demario Richard
— ASU and Weber State have never played before. This will be Weber State’s second game against a Pac-12 team and fifth ever against a team from a "Power 5" conference. With ASU ranked 19th in the country, this will be the fourth time Weber State plays a nationally ranked FBS opponent.
— Weber State went 2-10 last season. It returns 36 players from that team and added eight transfers from FBS schools. In games against FBS opponents Utah and Utah State last season, Weber State gave up a combined 140 points while scoring 13.
— Weber State is led by first-year coach Jay Hill, who came to the school after 13 seasons as an assistant at Utah. The Utes, of course, gave ASU a scare last year, but the Sun Devils snuck out of Salt Lake City with a 20-19 win. The talent gap may be huge, but Hill should be a little more prepared for this matchup because of his experience last season.
Taylor Kelly, QB, ASU — Kelly enters his third season as the Sun Devils’ starter and appears primed for his best season yet. This will be more of a tune-up game for Kelly, who should be able to pick apart Weber State’s secondary and build chemistry with his receivers.
D.J. Foster, RB, ASU — The junior steps in as ASU’s premier running back, a role he filled in the final three games of 2013. He should get plenty of touches as ASU works to build a big lead early in the game.
D.J. Calhoun, LB, ASU — The true freshman is expected to start at will linebacker after enrolling in the spring. Despite his youth, he’ll be a key piece of the defense this season, and this will be a good game to get his feet wet.
Billy Green, QB, Weber State — Green transferred to Weber State from BYU in the offseason and won the starting job
As Graham pointed out, Weber State has everything to gain in this game. For ASU, it’s a standard season opener against a lower-division opponent, and presumably a freebie win — it would be embarrassing otherwise. ASU hasn’t lost a season opener since 2002, and this is the small first step of the new season.
Weber State might be a little better this year with a new coach, but it’s still fielding FCS-level talent, and considering how the Wildcats fared FBS teams last season it’s hard to imagine any scenario where the Sun Devil don’t run away with this game, barring something catastrophic.