For the first time since 2011, the Arizona State football team had a losing record in non-conference play last season. In 2018, the Devils will begin the year with home games against University of Texas-San Antonio and Michigan State on September 1 and 8, then they travel to San Diego State on September 15. The contest in California could be especially interesting strategically, given that ASU’s defensive coordinator, Danny Gonzales, was with the Aztecs in the same role last year.
The Sun Devils have some familiarity with their first opponent of the season, UTSA. ASU defeated the Roadrunners 32-28 on the road in 2016. Current quarterback Manny Wilkins started for Arizona State and then-freshman N’Keal Harry reeled in five receptions including a touchdown catch. But Arizona State will have a different look this time due to their coaching overhaul led by head man Herm Edwards.
UTSA’s offense could have an altered appearance from last time all around, with a new coordinator, starting quarterback and weapons who were not starters two years ago. Sophomore Bryce Rivers will likely be under center after throwing just eight passes in 2017 as a backup to three-year starter Dalton Sturm.
Defensively, the Roadrunners only gave up 17 points per-game in 2017, good for eighth in the country. That being said, their leader in sacks and tackles-for-loss Marcus Davenport graduated and was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the first round. His presence as a rusher will be sorely missed. Also, their top defensive back Nate Gaines, who intercepted a Wilkins pass in 2016, graduated.
The next week brings Michigan State, who will be a new challenge for ASU; the Devils haven’t taken on the Spartans since 1986. In fact, the Devils haven’t seen a Big Ten team since they defeated Wisconsin in 2013. MSU’s very last game was against a Pac-12 opponent, where they soundly beat Washington State 42-17 in last year’s Holiday Bowl.
The Spartans should be ASU’s most challenging of the three non-Pac-12 opponents. Under Head Coach Mark Dantonio, MSU has gone over .500 in nine of his 11 seasons and they have won 10 or more games in four of the past five years. In 2017, they finished 10-3 and were ranked 15th on the AP Poll. Their defense ranked 23rd in the nation in points allowed and their top four tacklers and top five producers of sack are returning. Plus, defensive back David Dowell intercepted the second-most passes in the Big Ten last year (five), and he will also be back.
On the offensive side, Michigan State returns several starters including quarterback Brian Lewerke. His top two receivers from last year are also coming back, as is running back L J Scott. Scott could be especially dangerous for the Devils considering their defensive front will include a lot of players with minimal experience, leaving them possibly vulnerable, especially early in the season.
Finally, San Diego State (10-3 last year) will battle the Devils for the second straight season. Gonzales’ schemes worked very well for the last year, as SDSU’s defense ranked 12th while having a top-10 rush defense. In the Aztecs 30-20 win over the Sun Devils last September, San Diego State held ASU’s lead rusher, Kalen Ballage, to just 44 yards.
On the other side of the ball, running back Rashaad Penny ran Arizona State into the ground with 216 yards and three touchdowns. Thankfully, the Sun Devils do not have to contend with him again, as he is now a Seattle Seahawk. However, the Aztecs do still have halfback Juwan Washington, who averaged six yards-per-carry in 2017 and will be no pushover for the ASU defense. But with ex-Aztec Gonzales around, Arizona State’s defense should be better prepared this time around.