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Opponent Defense Preview: Arizona State

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A breakout true freshman, new coaches galore, and a way better product are coming up to Montlake.

Arizona State v San Diego State Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images

Looking to get that bad taste of the 2017 ASU/UW matchup out of your mouth? Luckily, Washington’s chance to cleanse your memory is already here against Herm Edwards and his new and seriously improved defense.

While the Dawgs won’t be facing a blitz every freaking down like they have in the past against Arizona State, they will be facing a much better-rounded defense, a more disciplined defense, and generally, a much better defense than what the Devils have had in the past. All that, and it’s only week four of season one.

Personnel and What to Expect

After the crapshow that was Todd Graham’s defenses, the Sun Devils have something actually dependable for the first time in a while and it’s already paid off for them.

As a defensively-minded coach, we guessed Herm Edwards would improve the ASU defense eventually. The questions were primarily: A) by how much? and B) how long would it take to see progress? Already, it seems the answers are A) quite a bit and B) immediately. The primary guy behind this improvement is Defensive Coordinator Danny Gonzales, who Herm brought in from San Diego State. Even after just three weeks, the results are positive.

Bringing in a 3-3-5 base defense isn’t the only thing that’s new. In general, the team looks like they’re heading in the direction of a Stanford-y, Utah-y, and yes, Washington-y defense; they’re more disciplined on assignments, better tacklers, and in general, it appears that any given individual on the field is having more of an impact. Furthermore, the defensive philosophy is a bit more nuanced than former coach Todd Graham’s “throw everything and the kitchen sink at the offensive line and cross your fingers” approach, which provided poor results year after year and yet which Graham, year after year, refused to adapt.

The result is that, three weeks into the season, Arizona State is allowing 16 points per game. Not bad for an instant coaching impact, especially given that, in 2015, 2016, and 2017, the Sun Devils gave up 33.5, 39.8, and 32.9 points per game respectively.

While there’s been improvement on all fronts, the cornerbacks are especially a strength of the defense, with sophomore Chase Lucas and Kobe Williams manning the first team and Dominique Harrison and Terin Adams right behind them. They’re accompanied by safeties Demonte King and Langston Frederick. Overall, the passing defense is a bit bend-don’t-break-ish; they’re allowing 220 passing yards per game, 6.2 yards per attempt, and 11.4 yards per completion, but they’ve only given up two passing touchdowns.

Connecting the secondary to the linebackers is their trademark “Pat Tillman” LB/Safety hybrid position. Former wide receiver Jalen Harvey brings his athleticism to that spot, while Evan Fields has gotten quite a bit of playing time there as well.

Of the true linebackers, Koron Crump still isn’t 100% and so is in the process of being eased back into things after his knee injury last year. Otherwise, Tyler Johnson is injured and questionable for Saturday, but juniors Malik Lawall and Khaylan Kearse-Thomas have been making themselves known, as has redshirt freshman Kyle Soelle.

The biggest (and newest) name to remember in the linebackers and, likely, on this entire defense, is true freshman OLB Merlin Robertson, who was named National Defensive Player of the Week after just his second collegiate game ever for his performance against Michigan State. To help seal the upset, Robertson had nine tackles, one and a half sacks, and forced a fumble. While he’s a dangerous pass rusher, his background as an inside guy means he’s versatile and a force anywhere.

Then there’s the defensive line, which is youngish and has, accordingly, been somewhat streaky—at least where the run game is concerned. The frequently rotating combination of Shannon Forman, Renell Wren, and Jalen Bates plus Darius Slade, George Lee, and Jordan Hoyt has looked like a group that competes and has a greater impact for much longer into the game than Graham’s units did.

On one hand, the Devils only allowed two (or “2,” as it’s popularly known) rushing yards against UTSA, and are allowing 3.2 yards per carry and three rushing touchdowns coming into Saturday; they had the best statistical run defense in the country after two weeks. Plus, nobody in the Pac-12 has more TFLs per game (9), although Colorado and Utah are right behind them at 8.7. Then last week happened, and San Diego State rushed for 311 yards. Talk about disparity from “best performance” to “worst performance.”

Bottom Line

This isn’t Todd Graham’s undisciplined defense. While Washington’s offense should have the advantage over Sparky on paper, they can’t expect a bunch of missed tackles and sloppy assignments that will gift them free explosive plays. In the end, the Dawgs will have to fight for their yards more than they’ve had to against ASU teams past (last year’s disaster of a game notwithstanding). If the Huskies’ offense plays tight, however, they should come out the victors, albeit in a battle that’s not won easily.

Plus, with rotating more players in, they’ll be playing not just better, but better for longer. The Huskies won’t be able to pull away like they did in the 2016 version of this matchup.

Overall, UW will probably have a pretty balanced attack, unlike what we saw against Auburn—having to establish downfield threats for the defense to open up—or against Utah—getting more opportunities to run between the tackles to dare their insane secondary to play up. While ASU doesn’t have as purely talented a defense as Utah or Auburn, they’re massively improved, balanced, and newly sound in fundamentals both physically and mentally.

Whatever happens, we know one thing: Washington will get somewhere between 2 and 311 yards on the ground.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.