Arizona State understands what it’s up against on Saturday afternoon.
When the Sun Devils head to Spartan Stadium to take on No. 18 Michigan State, they’ll be facing the top rushing defense in the nation — not exactly a great matchup for an Arizona State offense that ranks 95th in the nation in rushing offense through two weeks, averaging 131 yards a game.
“Now we’re gonna play a legitimate football team,” Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said. “They’re big-time. They’re good and they’re gonna stop you. You can do everything right and they’re gonna beat you and you can’t worry about that because that’s gonna happen.”
The Spartans have certainly been big-time when it comes to stopping the run. Last season, they led the nation in rushing defense, allowing 77.9 yards a game. They’re in the same position through two games this season highlighted by limiting Tulsa to -73 yards rushing the season-opener.
Those are eye-popping numbers for a Sun Devils offense that is still searching for an offensive identity. However, they’re not shying away. They’re fired up by it.
“I love this challenge,” offensive coordinator Rob Likens said. “This is gonna be awesome. We get to go up to Michigan State. Nobody thinks we’re any good on offense and they’re the No. 1 rushing defense in the country and we can’t run the football. Doesn’t get any better than that. You know what I mean? Let’s go.”
It’s a good thing the Sun Devils are keeping a positive attitude heading into Week 3.
Much like Michigan State, there were plenty of questions surrounding Arizona State’s offense entering the season. The biggest reason is because the Sun Devils are young with a total of 25 freshmen or redshirt freshmen seeing action in the first two weeks.
The results have been mixed as Arizona State opened the season with a 30-7 victory over Kent State before struggling to get past FCS foe Sacramento State, managing just 19 points.
“On offense we’re trying to find our identity,” Edwards said. “We’ve got a bunch of young guys, and that’s just the way it is right now. We’ve done a lot of things with the offensive line and there’s not a lot of depth there and the depth that is there are freshmen players and we’re going to be forced to play some of those guys.”
They’ll be playing in front a true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels, who has played well in his first two games. He’s completed 62.8 percent of his passes (32-for-51) for 588 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and has also run for 38 yards and a touchdown.
Against Sacramento State, he threw for 304 yards and has shown a knack for the big play with completions of 77 and 71 yards.
But it’s his approach that has Likens fired up.
“I love his just attitude, his mentality, he never gets rattled,” Likens said. “Today, we had a great talk after practice walking off the practice field. I thought maybe he was a little down and he was like, ‘Coach, it’s a long season, man, we’ve got to just get better.’ And it was like, ‘Hold on, who’s coaching who?’ His mindset is amazing in that way, he’s very mature.”
For Daniels and the rest of the Arizona State offense to succeed on Saturday, Edwards said the key is being patient. It helped the Sun Devils last season when they scored the final 13 points of the game to get past Michigan State, 16-13.
But quarterback Manny Wilkins is gone and wide receiver N’Keal Harry is in the NFL. So, this year’s Sun Devils team will need to find another way to get a second straight win over the Spartans and one of the best defenses in the country.
“We’re playing a big, physical football team up front with seven veteran guys,” Edwards said. “They play in a conference where they play everything contested — everything’s contested, every yard, every pass. They’re a heavy-handed team, they play heavy football. They’re athletic and they play heavy. And so you’ve got to realize that when you play them, you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘What can we do to use our athleticism at certain positions to try to counter that?’
“That’s the greatness about football — there’s all these moving parts and then you’ve got to come up with a game plan that allows your players to have success.”
Arizona State at Michigan State
Kickoff: 4 Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Both teams 2-0
Line: Michigan State by 13½