Tempe, AZ (SportsNetwork.com) - The eighth FCS-FBS matchup on Thursday will feature the Weber State Wildcats, of the Big Sky Conference, traveling to take on the 19th-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
It's the first time Weber State, from Ogden, Utah, and Arizona State have ever met on the field. The Sun Devils were rewarded following one of the best seasons they've had in recent history with a distinction in the Associated Press Top-25 poll, coming in at No. 19 before the season kicks off.
Arizona State is rearing to go after its 10-4 2013 campaign that culminated in a Pac-12 South Division championship and a visit to the Holiday Bowl, which the team lost to Texas Tech, 37-23, despite coming in as 14-point favorites. It was the first doublt-digit win season for ASU in the past five years, and third-year head coach Todd Graham has the program trending in the right direction, increasing the team's number of wins in each of his previous two seasons.
Weber State, on the other hand, had a pretty dismal season in the FCS a year ago, finishing 2-10 on the year with a 1-7 mark in the Big Sky Conference (finished in a tie for 11th). The Wildcats have a new coach entering 2014 in Jay Hill (former assistant at Utah), and must face two extremely formidable opponents to start the new campaign in Arizona State and three-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State.
In a season that was plagued with sub-par play, the Wildcats struggled on both offense and defense. Offensively, Weber State averaged only 15.8 ppg and managed just 295.6 total ypg. The team was outscored 497-190 on the season, and had some glaring holes to fill in summer camp.
Starting quarterback Austin Chipoletti is gone, though his 8-to-9 touchdown to interception ratio wasn't exactly picturesque. Sophomore Jadrian Clark is the likely successor to Chipoletti under center. Clark saw brief time at quarterback last season, appearing in four games and completing just 2-of-6 pass attempts for five yards.
In the backfield is where the Wildcats feel the most secure with Bo Bolen returning at running back. Bolen led the squad with 123 carries for 549 yards and five touchdowns in 2013. The loss of primary backup Josh Booker will hurt in terms of depth, but Bolen has the keys to the carries now. It'll be a matter of what he can do with them.
Bolen was also a factor in the pass catching game last season, as he returns as the leader in receptions (27). Thankfully for Clark, sophomore Cameron Livingston, who paced Weber State with four touchdown grabs a year ago, is back to lead the receiving corps. Senior Shaydon Kehano should step up to be a regular target as well, but that will depend on the development of Clark (or another signal caller) under center.
The defense is what will have to carry the Wildcats until the offense can get going. As a unit in 2013, the Wildcats allowed 41.4 ppg to opponents, but return a key group of players on the line up front and in the secondary. Between ends Obi Owoh and Dustin Martin, who had a combined 14 tackles for loss last season, and tackle Connor Meyers, Weber State should be at least efficient in the run-stopping game.
Safeties Adam Padilla (88 total tackles) and Chris Jones, and cornerback Deon'tae Florence (four interceptions, eight pass breakups) will anchor a secondary that surrendered 233.6 passing ypg last season. Having gained valuable experience in 2013, an upper classmen-heavy backfield should be exactly what the Wildcats need.
Roman Valenzuela (88 tackles, four tackles for loss) and Luke King (43 tackles) are the veterans of the linebacker corps in a defense that plays a 3-4 scheme, so they'll see plenty of action and will be counted on to make plays.
For Arizona State, Graham has his players in a specific mindset entering the new season, and he believes his squad is headed for another promising year.
"Our program's about winning championships, period. Our motto this year is unfinished business," Graham said. "We're one game shy last year, and we don't want to be Pac-12 South champions. We want to be Pac-12 champions, Rose Bowl champions, and obviously win every game."
The Sun Devils were an offensive force last season, finishing 10th in the country with a scoring average of 39.7 ppg. That included an eye-popping 457.3 total ypg. This season shouldn't be any different with quarterback Taylor Kelly leading the charge. Kelly is entering his third year as the starter under center, and in 2013 threw for 28 touchdowns and 3,635 yards with 12 interceptions.
He returns an assortment of weapons both in the backfield and out in the receiving corps. Although tailback Marion Grice is now at the NFL level, D.J. Foster (501 rushing yards, six touchdowns) will have the reins to the backfield. Foster showed his versatility by ranking second on the team in receptions (63) and receiving yards (653) in 2013.
The player that finished first on the team in receiving is the one that opposing teams fear the most. Wideout Jaelen Strong returns after a breakout season in which he caught 75 balls for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns. The 6-foot-3 receiver is the go-to man, and will be joined by Cameron Smith (eight receptions, 129 yards).
Defense is the key question for the Sun Devils, who return just two starters to the lineup in linebacker Salamo Fiso and safety Damarious Randall. The team ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in total defense in 2013 (372.4 ypg) and allowed 26.6 ppg to opponents.
"We're going to be young, but we're very talented," Graham said. "We have guys that have talent and we've just got to adapt to them in the same way. ... I'm a defensive minded coach. To win a championship, you have to play defense. So we'll adapt, obviously, early in the season."
What needs to happen for ASU on defense is for seniors to finally step into their roles. On the line up front, Marcus Hardison and Mo Latu have a chance to finally shine in the wake of losing players like Carl Bradford and Will Sutton.
Fiso, a sophomore, will lead a group of young linebackers that includes freshman D.J. Calhoun and redshirt sophomore Viliami Moeakiola, while the senior Randall takes on the challenge of brining guys like redshirt freshman Marcus Ball and juniors Kweishi Brown and Lloyd Carrington up to speed.
08/27 11:03:05 ET