The Wisconsin Badgers and Arizona State Sun Devils aren't playing Massachusetts, Sacramento State or Tennessee Tech this week—they're playing each other, and it's about to get real.
Between Wisconsin and Arizona State, those were their three opponents over the first two weeks of the season. The combined score in those games? 148-0.
Perhaps those weren't the greatest tests, but each team is about to make up for lost time in pressure-cooked situations. Saturday's showdown will be the first road game for the Badgers since last November when they lost at Penn State, and the Sun Devils' first game against a ranked opponent at home since Oct. 18 when they fell to Oregon.
Back in 2010, these two teams squared off at Camp Randall Stadium, and Wisconsin went on to win, 20-19, thanks to a blocked extra point. At the time, the Badgers were the No. 11 team in the country while Arizona State was unranked.
Wisconsin reached the first of three consecutive Rose Bowls that season, but if it wants to keep that streak alive, it needs to prove that it can win tough games on the road, as a Sept. 28 showdown in Columbus, Ohio, is looming. For the Sun Devils, a victory would undoubtedly vault them into the Top 25, but they can't afford to look ahead to their trip to Stanford on Sept. 21.
Certainly, Arizona State has revenge on its mind, but the Badgers and head coach Gary Andersen are ready to empty their bag of tricks. We'll get you all geared up for one of Week 3's biggest games on the college football schedule.
Day, Time: Saturday at 10:30 p.m. ET
Place: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
Spread: Arizona State -6 (via Bovada.lv)
Balance on Offense
The secret's out: Wisconsin is pretty good at running the football.
The Sun Devils are fully aware that they'll be getting a heavy dose of James White and Melvin Gordon, so the Badgers can't simply rely on running the football like they did against UMass and Tennesee Tech.
That means Joel Stave will need to be ready to throw early and often. While he's put up solid numbers (71.7 completion percentage, 416 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs) so far this season, there are concerns about Stave under-throwing his receivers and staring down his intended targets. If Stave can be effective in the passing game and protect the football, Arizona State might be in for a long night.
Show Some New Looks on Defense
Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda hasn't fully unleashed his defense yet, and understandably so. Just look at who it has played so far. The Badgers didn't want to give too much for Arizona State to study on film, so they have played a fairly straight 3-4 defense with a few wrinkles here and there.
After UW's Week 1 mauling of UMass, linebacker Brendan Kelly admitted there was more to the defense than met the eye, saying Aranda has "blitzes under his pillowcase" (via Bucky's 5th Quarter). Look for the Badgers to throw blitzes, coverages and formations at Arizona State that nobody but Wisconsin has seen before.
Contain Arizona State's Spread Attack
The Badgers had no trouble in handling the spread attack of Tennessee Tech, but that was an FCS opponent. Arizona State has a high-powered spread offense and it's led by one of the best quarterbacks nobody has heard of in Taylor Kelly.
Last season, the Sun Devils averaged the third-most points per game (36.4) in the Pac-12 and they bring back plenty of firepower from that 2012 team. Arizona State dropped 55 points on Sacramento State last week, and while Wisconsin believes it has learned how to contain the spread, it has had trouble doing so in the past and would rather not get involved in a shootout, according to Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Pick Apart Wisconsin's Inexperienced Secondary
The Badgers lost three starters from last season's starting secondary, and the Sun Devils have Taylor Kelly. All he did last week was throw for 300 yards and five touchdowns while completing 74.2 percent of his passes—in just one half of football.
In 2012, the junior quarterback threw for over 3,000 yards, 29 TDs, 9 INTs and completed 67.1 percent of his throws. So far, Wisconsin hasn't shown any ill effects regarding its unproven defensive backfield, but the level of competition is about to skyrocket. Kelly would be smart to test the waters and look to pick apart the Badgers' secondary.
Make Badgers Go to the Air
Maybe Wisconsin was able to run the ball at will against UMass and Tennesee Tech in front of its home crowd, but pounding the rock won't be as easy to come by against Arizona State.
Or maybe it will. The Sun Devils allowed 172 yards per game on the ground for the third-worst mark in the Pac-12 last season. That means they will have to make a concerted effort to stack the box and limit the damage in the running game, forcing Stave to go to the air where his options are limited.
Look Out for Gimmicks
Going up against teams like UMass and Tennessee Tech allowed the Badgers to save their playbook. In other words, Arizona State needs to be ready for the kitchen sink on Saturday.
There was a lot of talk about the read-option in Madison, Wisc., during the offseason, although Stave lacks the mobility to pull that look off effectively. It's more about what Wisconsin might pull on defense that could catch the Sun Devils off guard, so they will need to be on the lookout for deception and trickery.
Before we get to sophomore tailback Melvin Gordon, the Badgers' Week 3 depth chart features some changes due to injury and kicking woes, so you'll want to check that out.
One player who remains second on the depth chart is Gordon, but that won't stop us from making him the player to watch for Wisconsin.
Gordon is Wisconsin's leading rusher, putting up 142 yards per contest to go along with a 12.9 average and two touchdowns. Despite having the third-most carries on the team, Gordon has outrushed both James White and Corey Clement by more than 30 yards.
He's an explosive runner with big-play ability, and while White offers more of a steady approach as a back who can run between the tackles, Gordon has looked more impressive than his predecessor.
With this game expected to go down to the wire, we likely won't see much, if any, of the true freshman Clement, so that means more carries for Gordon and more opportunities to bust open a big play.
The two-headed attack of White and Gordon on the ground is the crucial area of Wisconsin's offense to watch, but more specifically, keep an eye out for when Gordon spells White because it could result in a game-changing play for the Badgers.
The Badgers are about to see a major hike in ability when it comes to the quarterback position.
Arizona State features Taylor Kelly under center and he can sling the football. It doesn't hurt that Kelly has several weapons to turn to in his passing game, including junior college transfer Jaelen Strong, Kevin Ozier and tight end Chris Coyle on the Sun Devils' depth chart.
Working out of the spread formation, Kelly can swing it to his running back, look for tight ends releasing off their blocks or find a streaking wide receiver. There are several options for the Wisconsin defense to account for on every play because of Arizona State's diverse offense and that will be a true test for the Badgers' inexperienced secondary.
It will also be the first true test for converted linebacker Brendan Kelly, who will be expected to drop back into coverage at times.
But back to the other Kelly—did we mention he can run, too? He rushed for 534 yards last season.
To what extent can Kelly pick apart Wisconsin's defensive backfield, and how often will he take off running despite the presence of Chris Borland? If he's on Saturday night, we might be in for a pinball machine of a scoreboard.
Arizona State was second in the nation in sacks last season and led the nation in tackles for a loss. Head coach Todd Graham likes his team's aggressive approach, according to Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic:
I know I'm not going to be happy if we're finessing anything. There are two types of coaches: ones that try not to lose and ones that just go out and put it in the left lane and say, 'Let's go perform.' Everything we do, we're going to be aggressive.
Meanwhile, the Badgers feel confident in their ability to handle the spread offense despite past struggles against the formation.
"We are way better now," safety Dezmen Southward said in Haller's article. "I couldn't even put it into words."
of the Journal-Sentinel wrote that Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen also feels comfortable with where the Badgers are defending the spread offense, but noted that not every spread attack is the same.
"The spread offense is really evolving to be two or three different offenses. It is not just the triple-option attack with a very athletic quarterback. It's not just the four (receivers) and throw and the zone-read scheme. It is a combination of all of them."
Andersen added that he believes where the spread offense is really going is a lot like what Arizona State has done. He also saw more Pistol looks this year from the Sun Devils.
Graham had plenty of nice things to say about his upcoming opponent, via Jeff Metcalfe of Azcentral Sports:
These guys are a really, really good football team. Totally dominated their first two opponents. Really physical defense up front, really good in all phases. They have three running backs that are really special. We’ve prepared for this, and we’re looking forward to it. This is why you coach.
Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland knows exactly what the Badgers' trip to Arizona State will reveal, wrote Potrykus:
I think a lot of times you can have guys that are front-runners, that when everything is going well they are rah-rah guys. But Arizona State is an excellent team. We're going to find out who really likes to compete.
How prepared Wisconsin is to handle the initial shock of Arizona State's raucous crowd and an infinitely better opponent could be the difference between taking care of business and ending up on the short end of the stick.
Even though the Badgers enter Week 3 ranked while the Sun Devils sit just outside the Top 25, the home-field advantage of Sun Devil Stadium is enough to make Arizona State six-point favorites.
The Sun Devils will be be all sorts of pumped up, as they are led out of the Pat Tillman Tunnel and onto the field in front of 71,000 strong. Let's just hope nobody ends up like poor Kody Koebensky.
It will be important for the Wisconsin brass and its leaders to provide a calming effect and attempt to take advantage of an Arizona State team riddled with emotion. That's exactly what the Badgers were able to do last season at Nebraska by jumping out to an early lead.
But Wisconsin lost that game by a narrow margin. In fact, all of the Badgers' six losses came by seven points or less. Who knows if they will be able to overcome that mental roadblock in Tempe?
According to Benjamin Worgull of TheBadgerNation.com, Arizona State is 8-0 all-time at home against Big Ten opponents. The task for the underdog Badgers to come out victorious will prove to be too tall and the Sun Devils will keep their home unbeaten streak alive behind the arm of Taylor Kelly and Arizona State's aggressive defense.
Prediction: Arizona State 38, Wisconsin 28