Having the top-ranked defense three weeks into the college football season is akin to leading the Tour de France after the first three stages: It’s reason for encouragement, but the steeper terrain ahead will ultimately prove your worth.
The Arizona State football team’s defense gets its first big test on Saturday when it travels to Athens, Ga., to face off with the No. 21 Bulldogs.
The Sun Devils (2-0) held Idaho State and Louisiana-Monroe to 17 combined points in the first two games. The defense is only giving up 149.5 yards per game this year, best in the country, but Georgia (2-1) is a different animal.
The Bulldogs have scored 41 and 52 points in their last two games and have much more talent than any team Arizona State has seen thus far.
Cornerback Omar Bolden said the prospect of going up against a big-time offense gets him excited.
“You’ve got to look forward to things like that,” Bolden said. “You’re definitely going to get challenged, and that’s what you want. You don’t want to be out there like, ‘Man, when am I going to get some action?’ You don’t have to worry about that.”
Throughout spring and fall camp, the defense earned high marks for its athleticism and playmaking abilities.
That was evident the first two weeks, when the Sun Devils gave up few big offensive plays and forced eight turnovers.
The linebackers themselves have five interceptions and two fumble recoveries already this season.
Senior Mike Nixon said despite playing lesser teams, he was happy with the discipline showed by the defense.
“Maybe we had some better athletes (than Louisiana-Monroe and Idaho State), but we were playing assignment-sound football,” Nixon said. “We weren’t even giving them a chance to make big plays. If we can do that and can put ourselves in the position to shut them down, then hopefully we can do that.”
It won’t be nearly as easy.
Georgia packs 92,746 fans into Sanford Stadium, and the spectators are happy to make their presence known.
“There’s a lot of talkers,” said Thomas Altieri, whose brother, Mike, played there and told him about the experience.
Bolden said it’s a matter of not getting caught up in any of that and staying within yourself.
Last year, when trying to defend the Georgia wide receivers, he would backpedal faster and longer than normal because he was afraid to get beat deep. But that opened up other opportunities for the Bulldogs.
This year he’s relying on his physical gifts to get the job done.
“This Saturday I’m really going to focus on trusting my speed,” Bolden said. “I feel like I’m a fast guy, and I can run with any of the receivers out there. All I’ve got to do is trust myself.”
That might be the key for the entire team. With a game against a team of Georgia’s caliber, players sometimes feel like it is up to them to make every big play.
Nixon knows that mentality is a possibility going in.
“It’s happened before,” he said. “People are too excited to make the play, rather than just play within the system. I think it’s something the coaches will talk about Friday night before the game: Just do your assignment, trust the guy next to you and we’ll be fine.”
Georgia quarterback Joe Cox is 50 of 79 for 738 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions in three games this year. Wide receiver A.J. Green has 17 catches for 275 yards and three touchdowns and torched the Sun Devils for eight catches and 159 yards last year as a freshman.
It will be quarterback Danny Sullivan’s first career road start, and with question marks on the offensive line and in the backfield, the Sun Devils likely wouldn’t survive an offensive shootout.
So if Arizona State has visions of pulling off an upset, the defense is going to play a huge part.
“We’re really going to find out what we’re all about,” Nixon said.