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Arizona State is gearing up to host the UNLV Rebels on Saturday in what will only be the second-overall meeting in program history. The last time the two teams met on the field was on Sept. 13, 2008, with the Rebels snagging a 23-20 overtime victory on a blocked field goal attempt. This year’s squad for UNLV is significantly different from years past, and is coming into this game with a losing skid that rivals the University of Arizona’s. While ASU should be able to easily secure the victory, keep an eye on these key aspects in the game, which will speak to what we can expect to see this season, good or bad.
First, which comes as no surprise, is the number of penalties the Sun Devils accrued in this game. Last week, ASU’s penalties were horrendous, with 13 flags for a total of 135 yards. Of those penalties, 120 yards worth came in the first half. When you consider the fact that Southern Utah’s offense only generated about 150 yards in the same time span, it hurts even worse.
At the half, you’d have to imagine Herm Edwards spoke with the team about penalties in the first two quarters and hammered the need for discipline, but a false start on the first snap of the third quarter set the Sun Devils back again right out of the gate.
In the four-game 2020 season, ASU only gave up 218 total yards on 28 penalties. That puts into perspective the lack of discipline against SUU. It’s most likely just the adrenaline rush and the return to a true game day environment, as the first game is normally a time to fine-tune things leading into the conference games. If ASU is going to make an actual run at the Pac-12 South, the number of penalties is going to need to be cut in half at the very least. How many calls come against the Sun Devils in the game against UNLV will be a good indicator as to whether it’s time to grow concerned about the continued penalty issues.
Protect the ball
Ball security was another issue on the field last week. The Sun Devils had three fumbles, and while they recovered one of them, it was still far too many. In 2020, ball security was somewhat of an issue for Arizona State, and the opening game showed no signs of turning the corner.
Because of how much UNLV’s defense struggled to stop Eastern Washington’s passing game, it’s likely that Jayden Daniels is going to open up a little bit more and show off his arm. If this is indeed the case, ASU’s receivers will need to pay attention to making sure the ball is protected at all times.
However, this is something that applies to all of the offensive players. Whether it’s more drills in practice to make sure the ball doesn’t get stripped or just being smarter about the play, it’s currently a cloud looming over the offense.
Speaking of utilizing the receivers, there are a lot of expectations surrounding Daniels leading into this season. Against Southern Utah, Daniels completed 10 of his 12 attempts for 132 yards with no interceptions. While it was a solid performance, it lacked the excitement a lot of fans were hoping for.
It’s understandable that Offensive Coordinator Zak Hill doesn’t want to put his quarterback at risk and have him playing more than he needs to. It’s also understandable that they’re going to keep it very vanilla at the beginning of the season against non-conference opponents. However, a lot is going to come down to how Daniels continues to develop and perform throughout the season.
One of the biggest things he seemingly still struggles with is staying patient in the pocket. While he has the ability to run, and even hurdle over a number of defenders, it comes at the risk of his body. It may be exciting to watch and a viable option when he’s under pressure with nobody open, but he frequently defaults to this when he feels rushed. It would be nice to see him hold out a little longer before deciding to run.
His struggles to wait in the pocket are something that’s going to take time to correct, but hopefully he will start to become more comfortable in the UNLV game, to the point he is scrambling less and waiting a tad longer.
Overall Defensive Production
The Rebels haven’t won a game since Nov. 30, 2019. Offensive struggles have been a continuous issue, and the Sun Devils are going to be a big challenge. Arizona State’s defense is without a doubt one of the best in the conference, and with a stud returning group, they already look sharp. The Sun Devils currently lead the nation with 31 forced turnovers in their last 11 games. Darien Butler had two takeaways alone last week, while DeAndre Pierce had a 34-yard pick-six.
Defensive Coordinator Antonio Pierce anticipates the Rebels to come running on Saturday, which is why he knows the Sun Devils have to be “gap sound.” Following practice earlier this week, Pierce spoke about the struggles ASU had in stopping some of their running plays, specifically on the outside.
ASU’s main focus this year is to stop the run and force teams to throw the ball. Butler set the tone for the linebackers last week, and all eyes will be on juniors Merlin Robertson and Kyle Soelle to step up and match his production. Should the linebackers do their job, it will force UNLV to play the Devils’ game.
If the defense can force UNLV to pass the ball, keep an eye on senior defensive lineman Tyler Johnson. Last week, Johnson was ejected from the game following a targeting call in the first half, impacting ASU’s pass rush. Johnson closed out the 2020 season with huge plays in what could be considered his “comeback season” before starting off the Southern Utah game with a fierce intensity. Luckily for ASU, Johnson is eligible to start for them this week since it happened before the half, meaning he will be terrorizing the field all night.
Provided by DraftKings Sportsbook
Spread: ASU -33.5
Moneyline: Not available