Wisconsin's power attack will test ASU's commitment to upgraded run defense.
By TYLER LOCKMANFS Arizona
TEMPE, Ariz. -- All through the preseason, Arizona State coach Todd Graham said improving a run defense that ranked 81st in the nation last year was Priority No. 1.
Sun Devils will get a stern test of their imrpovement Saturday when No. 20 Wisconsin, one of college football's premier power running teams, comes to Sun Devil Stadium.
"This is as good of a run football team and as good of a big-play football team as we're going to play," Graham said. "We'll find out exactly where we're at when it comes to our run defense."
Wisconsin's rushing attack ranked 13th in the nation last season, averaging 236.4 yards per game. This year, through two early season tune-ups, it's third in the nation with 390.0 yards per game. That average is against soft opponents in Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech, but the point remains: Wisconsin is committed to running the football.
Three Wisconsin backs are averaging better than 125 yards per game: Sophomore Melvin Gordon with 142, senior James White with 126 and freshman Corey Clement with 125. White is the FBS' active career leader in rushing yards among running backs (2,823) and rushing touchdowns (34).
"I think they've got three running backs that are really special," Graham said.
It all amounts to a tall order for ASU, which gave up 182.9 rushing yards per game last season. While ASU continues to work on its schemes to stop the run, Graham believes the greatest difference in ASU's defense is depth and size.
On the starting defensive line, All-America tackle Will Sutton gained significant weight and strength, as did defensive end Gannon Conway.
Unlike last season, a capable second line, including Marcus Hardison, Mo Latu and Davon Coleman, can come in behind the starters and hold their own.
"I think the thing people don't factor in is you've got to have more than just one deep," Graham said. "You've got to be able to have guys like Mo and Davon play a big role in this game."
ASU also likes its improved linebacker depth, and the defense also benefits from Chris Young moving from the spur to will linebacker position.
Graham is also concerned about Wisconsin's play-action passing, but with a solid secondary, he knows the game will likely be decided at the line of scrimmage.
"The team that runs the football best has the best advantage to win this game," Graham said. "Then you factor in takeaways, owning the football. If we're 100 percent ball secure, I like our chances."