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Preview: 14th-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils ready for battle in Seattle
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Preview: 14th-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils ready for battle in Seattle

It’s been a while since the Arizona State Sun Devils have lost a football game to the Washington Huskies.

In fact, it’s been 13 years, but none of that really matters now.

What does matter is reality — both the 14th-ranked Sun Devils and Washington enter Saturday night’s game looking to stay relevant in their respective division races.

ASU (5-1, 3-1) has won two straight and is only a half-game behind USC in the South entering this weekend’s action. Washington has lost two of its last three, and needs a win to keep any remote Pac-12 North title hopes alive.

When ASU has the ball

It looks like Taylor Kelly will make his return to the Sun Devils Saturday night after he declared himself 100 percent healthy earlier this week.

The senior has missed the last three-plus games after suffering a right foot injury against Colorado last month. Prior to the injury, Kelly had completed nearly 62 percent (42-of-68) of his passes for 625 yards and six touchdowns. His 168 rushing yards are still good for the second-highest total on the team this season.

That’s where Kelly’s presence should be felt the most — statistically speaking, anyway. In the three games Kelly has played this season, ASU has averaged 304.3 yards per game on the ground. That number has shrunk to 94.3 per contest with Mike Bercovici at the controls. Yes, the level of competition (UCLA, USC, Stanford) has greatly increased in the last three games, but Kelly’s ability on the read-option opens things up for the ASU offense. This should help running back D.J. Foster, who has been bottled up as well, averaging 34 yards per game and 2.4 yards per carry in his last three games.

The ASU offensive line will be tested against the Washington front seven. The Huskies have sacked opposing quarterbacks 27 times in seven games this season, while ASU has allowed only 11 in 234 passing attempts. Buck linebacker Hau’Oli Kikaha has been a nightmare for opposing offenses this season. The senior leads the nation with 12.5 sacks (1.79 per game). Add in mammoth defensive tackle Danny Shelton (6-foot-2, 339 pounds) has also contributed 7.5 sacks on the season.

But it’s quite possible that neither Kikaha nor Shelton is the most dangerous player on Washington’s defense. Junior linebacker Shaq Thompson is a game-changer. He’s got 53 tackles, an interception and three fumble recoveries on the year — all four of those turnovers have been returned for touchdowns. Graham always preaches “100 percent ball security” being a key for ASU — it’s even more important this week with Thompson lurking on the other side.

The Huskies have been suspect in the defensive secondary — in fact, five different players have started at corner this year. UW ranks 112th in the nation, yielding 283.4 yards per game through the air, and they’ve allowed 14 touchdown passes — the fourth-most in the Pac-12. If Kelly gets time to throw, the Huskies could have a hard time staying with ASU’s Jaelen Strong, who has 30 catches for 423 yards and four touchdowns in his last three games.

When Washington has the ball

The Huskies offense is a difficult one to figure out. UW ranks dead last in total offense in the Pac-12, averaging 364.6 yards per game. Quarterback Cyler Miles has been decent, throwing 10 touchdown passes against just one interception, but he lacks go-to running and receiving threats. The Huskies have employed “tailback by committee” with very pedestrian results. Lavon Coleman, Dwayne Washington, Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier have combined for 873 yards on 208 carries (4.1 yards per carry) and five touchdowns.

Sophomore receiver John Ross is Washington’s most dangerous player, but he has only touched the ball 21 times on offense. But when he gets his hands on it, look out. His four touchdown receptions have averaged almost 77 yards in distance.

ASU is coming off one of its best defensive performances in recent memory in a 26-10 win over Stanford last week. The Sun Devils held the Cardinal to just 76 yards on the ground and three rushing first downs. But more importantly, ASU’s D looked nothing like the unit that was obliterated by UCLA for 580 yards just three weeks earlier.

Safety Demarious Randall, who was counted on to be a leader for a young group, has emerged in that role. The senior was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against Stanford that included seven tackles, a sack, a pass break-up and a fumble recovery. Junior cornerback Kwieshi Brown played his best game as a Sun Devil as well, registering five pass break-ups and helping to contain the dangerous Ty Montgomery.

Special teams

There has been a running joke about ASU’s special teams not being so special for the better part of the last two seasons. The punchline went unused following the Stanford game. Zane Gonzalez, who has emerged as one of the top kickers in the nation, booted four field goals. Punter Matt Haack and Randall combined on probably the biggest play of the Stanford game. Haack booted a 54-yard punt that Montgomery tried to catch over his head — he muffed it and then was pushed away from the ball by Randall, who made the recovery. Four plays later, ASU scored to go up 14 points late in the first half.

Kyle Middlebrooks has added a little spark to the kickoff return game and had a 32-yarder in his only effort against the Cardinal. The punt return game has left a lot to be desired. In fact, ASU is 121st in the country (out of 125 teams) in that category, averaging under 2.0 yards per attempt.

Washington has been very average on special teams as well, averaging just 19.2 yards per kickoff return and 9.6 yards per punt return. Kicker Cameron Van Winkle has been solid as well, hitting 9-of-10 field goal attempts on the season.

Weather

The Saturday forecast in Seattle calls for a 80 percent chance of rain and temperatures in the high 40s or low 50s, according to Weather.com.

ASU head coach Todd Graham isn’t concerned, however.

“I think people spend too much time worrying about things they have no control over,” he told Doug and Wolf Friday on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. “We just don’t do it.”

Noteworty

• ASU has won the last four meetings in Seattle by an average of 13.5 points.

• The Sun Devils dominated Washington last season 53-24 behind Marion Grice’s three-touchdown performance. The 53 points were the most ever scored by either team in the 31-game rivalry.

• Washington has three players from Arizona on its roster — long snapper Ryan Masel (Desert Vista HS), wide receiver Taelon Parson (Perry HS) and wide receiver Kendyl Taylor (Hamilton HS). ASU has one player from Washington on theirs — safety Jordan Simone (Sammamish/Skyline HS).

• Washington head coach Chris Petersen leads all active FBS coaches with a career .885 winning percentage (92-12).

• The Huskies have had just one player run for 100 or more yards this season — Lavon Coleman (118 vs. Eastern Washington). Last season, former UW RB Bishop Sankey had nine 100-plus yard games alone, including three where he eclipsed the 200-yard mark. ASU’s D.J. Foster has three 100-yard games in 2014.

• With consecutive wins over USC and Stanford, ASU has back-to-back wins over ranked opponents for the first time since 1997.