A week after losing 19-34 at Tennessee, Arkansas State will have another power conference opponent on hand when it faces Miami. Unfortunately, the focus this week has been less on these premier matchups and more on the controversy surrounding the cross decals ASU players were wearing to honor deceased former player Markel Owens and equipment manager Barry Weyer. ASU has since amended the decal that it will wear when it travels to Miami on Saturday.
Miami comes in at 1-1 after bouncing back from its 13-31 defeat to Louisville in week one with a 41-7 trouncing of Florida A&M last week. The team is carried by one of the best running backs in the nation, Duke Johnson, who has marveled with his consistency over the course of his career. Limiting Johnson will be the top goal for an ASU defense that did a decent, but unspectacular, job of limiting Tennessee on the ground.
The Volunteers were able to gain consistent rushing yards on early downs and put quarterback Justin Worley in the position to convert 9 of 18 third downs. In contrast to Tennessee almost exclusively using the read-option, Miami features a more traditional rushing attack. ASU relied on its back-seven to fill and limit the Vols' spread rushes last week. Those players will have to shed and avoid bigger blockers to do the same this week.
Miami will give its true freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya easier looks by spreading out the defense when it wants to pass, something that should play into ASU's hands if it can force longer passing downs than a week ago. The Hurricanes will be without its leading returning receiver from a year ago, Stacy Coley.
Defensively, Miami has shown the ability to attack well while simultaneously limiting big plays. Even when Louisville had its way in the opener, Miami didn't give up a pass play over 25 yards or a run over 20 while recording four sacks and eight tackles for losses. Like Louisville, ASU will need to efficiently complete passes and stay ahead of the chains on the ground.
The latter became a bigger hurdle when it was announced that starting running back Michael Gordon would not be suiting up against Miami. ASU's rushing offense struggled without him against Montana State and was abysmal even with him against Tennessee, with much of its successful ground yardage coming byway of Fredi Knighten scrambles.
On one hand, Miami yielding shorter pass plays fits into ASU's play calling so far this year. Knighten has been handed high-percentage looks and not asked to do much more. This became a problem against Tennessee when the offense's complete inability to push the ball downfield allowed Tennessee's defenders to attack the line of scrimmage with reckless abandon. With Miami's athletic secondary, ASU cannot afford to fall into the same trend.
Perhaps the biggest key for ASU staying in the game this week will be limiting mistakes. The Red Wolves yielded 61 more penalty yards than Tennessee while J.D. McKissic had a backbreaking turnover early in the second half when he fumbled a punt return inside of Tennessee's 40-yard line with ASU down by 12. Tennessee would turn around and put the game out of reach with a 10-play, 64-yard touchdown drive.
I expect a better performance from ASU than the one it gave a week ago, but it will need to do better than just that to upset a solid Hurricane team on the road.