ASU vs. Wisconsin: 5 questions

Wisconsin-Arizona State looked like an attractive college football matchup even before the season started. But given the way the Badgers and Sun Devils so thoroughly dominated overmatched opponents to open the season, intrigue has only grown for Saturday night’s game.

Wisconsin and Arizona State have combined to average 575.7 yards of offense per game while allowing a measly 164.0 yards on defense through the first two weeks. Clearly, something has to give. So which team has the advantage?’s Badgers writer Jesse Temple and’s Sun Devils writer Tyler Lockman cover these teams every day and explore the key issues heading into Saturday’s game in a five-question point-counterpoint.

1. Wisconsin and Arizona State have both played FCS teams, with the Badgers also playing UMass (which won one game last year and lost to an FCS team last week). What have we really learned to open the season about the team you cover?

TEMPLE: Wisconsin has outscored its first two opponents 93-0, so we at least know the Badgers are capable of pummeling bad teams. But I think we’ve learned a couple of important details about this year’s team. Offensively, the running back unit has an opportunity to be as good as any backfield Wisconsin has ever had — and that’s saying something considering Montee Ball was a Heisman Trophy finalist and a Doak Walker Award winner. James White and Melvin Gordon will take the bulk of the carries, but Corey Clement could be a starter at most schools. Consider that Wisconsin and 2004 Rice are the only FBS teams since 1996 to feature three 100-yard rushers in consecutive games.

There are still questions about which player will emerge as a No. 2 wide receiver behind Jared Abbrederis, who already has 10 catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns. Quarterback Joel Stave continues to improve, and he has one of the top tight end units in the country to work with, though his ability to stretch the field could be predicated on improved play from the team’s other wide receivers.

LOCKMAN: It’s hard to gauge just how good ASU’s defense is again this year against a Sacramento State team that has now failed to score in two games, but one thing was obvious about the Sun Devils regardless of the opponent: The offense is more dynamic. Last season, a tight end and two running backs (Chris Coyle, Marion Grice and D.J. Foster) were ASU’s top receiving targets. In ASU’s opener, quarterback Taylor Kelly connected with eight different receivers. Junior college transfer Jaelen Strong led the team with six catches and should do nothing but improve. ASU has its top producers from last season in Coyle, Foster and Grice, and Kelly now has an arsenal of receivers to work with. Factor in ASU’s new use of option plays and the pistol formation, and the offense is a force to be reckoned with.

2. Which unsung player should opposing fans be on the lookout for?

TEMPLE: Inside linebacker Conor O’Neill, a redshirt senior, had his first opportunity to start last week against Tennessee Tech in place of an injured Derek Landisch. All he did was record a team-high nine tackles with 1 1/2 tackles for loss. Landisch’s status for the Arizona State game is still in question as he recovers from an ankle injury. But O’Neill, who has played in 42 career games, is so reliable that members of the defense consider him to be like another starter. O’Neill ranks second on the team in total tackles (12) behind only Chris Borland’s 14.

LOCKMAN: Carl Bradford, ASU’s Devilbacker — a hybrid defensive lineman/linebacker position, has been mostly overshadowed by All-America defensive tackle Will Sutton. Bradford, who tallied 20 1/2 tackles for loss and 11 1/2 sacks last season, has freakish athleticism and incredible strength. That and all the attention sure to be paid to Sutton should give Bradford opportunities in this game. With as much as Wisconsin does out of the backfield in the run game and play-action passing, Bradford should get plenty of chances. The junior had a quiet season opener, largely because Sacramento State got rid of the ball so quickly, but I expect him to have a big performance in this game, regardless of the outcome.

3. Neither team has allowed a point thus far. Wisconsin ranks No. 1 nationally in total defense, while Arizona State ranks No. 2. Which defense is more adequately prepared for Saturday’s game?

TEMPLE: I know there are going to be those who think the Badgers’ secondary is relatively inexperienced and untested, and they may have a point. Safety Dezmen Southward is the only returning starter in a group that was hardly challenged downfield in the first two games. Still, Southward has boasted that Wisconsin’s defense is the best in the country — secondary included — and it’s hard to argue with the results thus far after allowing just 162.5 yards per game.

Wisconsin’s starting front seven features all seniors, provided Conor O’Neill starts in place of Derek Landisch. That’s a combined 288 games of experience among defensive end Pat Muldoon, nose guard Beau Allen, defensive end Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Ethan Armstrong, inside linebacker Chris Borland, O’Neill and outside linebacker Brendan Kelly. Wisconsin is playing in a new 3-4 defensive scheme under coordinator Dave Aranda, but the Badgers have taken to it better than anyone could have expected. The linebackers are more freed up to make plays, and the entire front seven appears more explosive. For that reason, the defensive edge goes to Wisconsin.

LOCKMAN: Again, it’s hard to say based on the competition both teams have faced, and Wisconsin has a strong defensive track record, but I have to give the edge to ASU based on continuity. Wisconsin’s personnel might not be all that different, but the coaching is. ASU, meanwhile, is in Year 2 of a defense that ranked second in the Pac-12 in total defense last season and has most of its starters back. All the defensive line starters have gotten bigger, and ASU has schemed like crazy to improve its run defense, which ranked 81st in the nation last year. Depth is improved at every position, particularly the front seven. Eight starters are seniors. Based on all that and ASU’s new offensive wrinkles, I have to say the Sun Devils.

4. A victory on Saturday would mean more for which program?

TEMPLE: The answer is pretty clearly Arizona State for all the reasons Tyler outlines below. Wisconsin is the three-time defending Big Ten champion, and while the conference could use a boost against the Pac-12, this game is more important to the Sun Devils. ASU coach Todd Graham is trying to build a program that can be a conference title contender in his second season. Going 8-5 and playing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl was nice for an opening act, but the Sun Devils are looking for more. Wisconsin, meanwhile, appears to have less to prove despite playing for a new coach, so a loss in Tempe won’t be all that damaging. The most important game on the schedule comes Sept. 28 when Wisconsin plays at Ohio State in a game that could determine whether the Badgers make a run at a fourth Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance.

LOCKMAN: I have to go with ASU, and it’s because Wisconsin has already established a well-deserved reputation as a powerhouse program. This may be the first big game of the Gary Andersen era, but Wisconsin is coming off three straight Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl berths. ASU hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl since 1996, has one winning season since 2007 and one bowl win since 2005. This game obviously won’t impact either team’s conference standing, but it’s a profile builder. In that regard, ASU needs a marquee win more than a perennial power like Wisconsin. Many would see an upset of the No. 20 Badgers as a potential waking of what’s seen as a “sleeping giant” program.

5. Who is going to win this game, by what score, and why?

TEMPLE: Back in June as part of my preseason “Know the Foe” series, I offered up this prediction: Arizona State 27, Wisconsin 21. Although both defenses have proven to be even better than most could anticipate, I’m going to stick with that result. This game is vitally important to Arizona State, the Sun Devils are 8-0 against Big Ten teams in Sun Devil Stadium, and the team’s offense looks especially dynamic. Badgers quarterback Joel Stave has rebounded twice from ill-advised interception throws, but you get the sense similar mistakes won’t go unpunished against Arizona State. There are so many other issues that haven’t cost Wisconsin, including bad center-quarterback snap exchanges and missed extra points and field goals. And if those miscues haven’t been cleaned up, Wisconsin could pay dearly on Saturday.

LOCKMAN: Maybe I’m too high on the Sun Devils, but I’ve got to go with them in this one by a score of 31-24 in a tight game start to finish. Why? I believe ASU is better equipped to handle a strong run game than it was last season. I also believe ASU’s passing attack will give Wisconsin’s secondary, featuring three new starters, fits. Lastly, I think ASU’s defensive front will get to Joel Stave enough to keep him out of rhythm. The wild card for me is the conditions. It’s been hot in Wisconsin lately, but the heat in Arizona is a little different and can leave players winded more than they might normally be, and Andersen has expressed concerns about playing two time zones away.