ASU’s defense in for toughest test yet vs. Washington QB Michael Penix Jr.
TEMPE — The Arizona State Sun Devils continue their gauntlet section of the schedule with a third ranked opponent in as many games and fourth of the season already.
After playing three teams now ranked in the top 11 in Weeks 2, 4 and 5, ASU now hosts No. 21 Washington, who would’ve been in the top 15 had it not lost to UCLA this past weekend.
“We’re going to have to play mistake-free, error-free football to be in this game,” interim head coach Shaun Aguano said Monday. “Our kids understand what needs to be done.
“We’re going to have to stop the quarterback. They have a transfer running back, as well, we’re going to have to make sure that we contain him and then not give up the big plays. I think this quarterback loves to go vertical more than anybody else and so we have to make sure that we do not give up those big plays.”
That combination is Indiana transfer QB Michael Penix Jr. and Virginia transfer RB Wayne Taulapapa.
Washington boasts one of the best offenses in the country, ranking No. 7 in the nation in total yards per game (506.6) and No. 12 in points per contest at 41.6.
Most of that has to do with the arm of Penix Jr., who has thrown for 1,733 yards this season — the most in college football. He’s also completed 16 touchdown passes (fifth most) to three interceptions — two of which came last week — on 65% passing (125-for-191).
In comparison to ASU’s previous opponents with lethal offenses, USC ranks 19th in yards per game at 480.4, Oklahoma State is 20th (478.2) and Utah is 21st (476.8). And when it comes to scoring offense, Oklahoma State ranks fifth in the country at 46.2 points per game, USC is 10th (42.2) and Utah is 11th (42.0).
Defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson said Monday that Penix Jr. might be the best quarterback Arizona State has faced all season, which includes the likes of OSU’s Spencer Sanders, Utah’s Cam Rising and USC’s Caleb Williams.
“This guy can stand in the pocket and deliver the ball,” Henderson said. “He’s got a strong arm and you know where he’s going to be at — he’s going to be in the pocket. He can stand back there and deliver that throw all around the field and he knows exactly where to go with it.
“He’s got some playmakers on the outside and he’s got a little running back that can do his thing too, so that’s what I noticed from him compared to all the other guys.”
However, when it comes to Washington’s running game, Henderson won’t have to worry as much about Penix Jr. escaping the pocket like Williams did last week. Penix only has 15 rushing attempts on the year for 25 yards and no scores, with his longest rush of the season going for 12 yards.
And while the Huskies’ ground attack only ranks No. 84 in the nation at 142.6 yards per game, the Sun Devils need to improve their tackling performance from a week ago to bring down the 5-foot-11, 207-pound Taulapapa.
The Washington running back is averaging 6.1 yards per carry and 71 yards per game. He’s also scored three rushing touchdowns and one receiving TD, the latter of which has come on his eight catches for 96 yards this season.
“The biggest thing with us is when we miss tackles. You got guys there, you still got to wrap up the ball carrier and tackle — you got to grab cloth,” Henderson said.
“There are so many times a guy runs right through our arms. We got him, we’re wrapped, we grabbed, but we didn’t grab cloth. So that’s the biggest thing we talked about this week is grabbing cloth and wrapping up and getting more guys to the run.”